Slave Lake fire shows need to implement national fire strategy, expert says

Killed pilot was from Montreal

26 May 2011

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Canada — The helicopter pilot killed last Friday afternoon while fighting wildfires near Slave Lake has been identified as Jean-Luc Deba.

The 54-year-old Montreal pilot died when the Bell 212 helicopter he was flying crashed into Lesser Slave Lake near Canyon Creek.

The helicopter, owned by Campbell Helicopters Ltd. of Abbotsford, B.C., was contracted by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development to help fight wildfires. SRD currently has about 140 helicopters and 32 air tankers under contract to fight fires around the province.

Ernst-Ulrich Maas, president and CEO of Transwest Helicopters in Chilliwack, B.C., said there is a “danger element” to being a helicopter pilot in firefighting situations, especially with the “rush” and “pressure” put on pilots when lives or houses are in danger.

“We gladly accept that fact,” said Maas, a former helicopter pilot of over 30 years.

Maas said for a helicopter to safely pick up water from a lake, pilots need to choose an area at least three feet deep that is close to shore.

Pictures of the crash show that Deba was “in the right spot,” he said.

Mass, who lost a friend and fellow helicopter pilot in a firefighting job near Lillooet, B.C., two years ago, said several things would have to go wrong at once for an accident like this to happen.

“It’s a great job,” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes something like this happens.”

Twelve firefighters who were at the scene of Friday’s crash rushed into the frigid water to pull Deba from the wreckage. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The yellow helicopter crashed 30 metres from shore.

A witness said the helicopter was scooping water from the lake when it suddenly turned on its side before disappearing from their sight behind the treeline and crashing into the lake.

The firefighters who tried to rescue Deba were treated at a nearby hospital for hypothermia and exposure to jet fuel.

Almost 300,000 hectares have been burned by wildfires since April, and of the 53 fires still burning across the province, 10 are out of control.

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