Those working to fight massive fires in northern Saskatchewan jump into action to do an exhausting, dangerous, and sophisticated job to save communities.
Those efforts were described by retired firefighting pilot Lee Smith, who fought flames in Saskatchewan, but now works as the manager of pilot training and flight standards with the Manitoba government’s Air Services. He joined Jill Slater and Dave Arnold on MainStreet on News Talk Radio Wednesday.
“It’s actually pretty complicated and it’s a wonderful thing from an organizational point of view to see the entire system and operation,” said Smith.
“When you get to those huge fires, as has been the case recently in Saskatchewan, some of those fires are just absolutely massive beyond any degree of comprehension of the general members of the public.”
He painted a detailed picture of the experience of being a pilot.
A typical day for the pilots – for both the bombers and bird dog aircraft – begins at 8 or 9 a.m. depending on the status of the alerts. If a Red Alert is issued, the phone rings with a double ring. The call from the provincial fire office provides the pilots the coordinates for their flight. The pilots quickly walk – not run – to their aircraft, climb in, strap on their belts and headset before completing a checklist. They are to be airborne within five minutes of getting the phone call to head towards their target.
“It’s almost like a scene out of a World War II movie,” said Smith.
“It’s really a quite, if you will, an exciting thing and yet at the same time, it’s very, very intimidating taking off heading toward a fire you can see 60 to 80 miles away because it’s a huge mushroom cloud that looks exactly like something out of a nuclear weapons test range,” said Smith.
“So as you are heading towards what looks like a nuclear explosion, you kind of wonder to yourself, ‘What effect am I with this aircraft?’ even though you are carrying a significant load of retardant to lay down on the sides of this fire.”
Smith said ideally, fire crews want to get to a fire when it is still less than one acre in size. An acre is a little less than the size of a football field.
The first aircraft on the scene are smaller and carrying the red retardant. They lay the retardant down in a pattern to box in the flames to try to prevent them from reaching more of the forest where they will find lots of fuel and can run away.
Once the fire is boxed in, a bomber will scoop water out of a nearby lake to dump on the flames. They work from the outward edges of the fire inward.
This work is coordinated by a bird dog pilot, who acts as the air traffic controller. The bomber pilots are stacked on top of one another in the sky above the fire until they are called and led in to the fire by the bird dog pilot.
The bird dog pilot is joined in his aircraft by an air attack officer, who acts as the fire chief directing the fire fighting activity. He determines how the fire will be fought, including when and where the retardant and water is dropped. He then later assesses the impact of that drop.
The challenge this year is that the ground is so dry, the fire is getting into the roots of the trees. Even with a small, one acre fire, the air crews can drop water up to 20 times as well as foam. They can leave the scene and return minutes later to find smoke has returned because the ground requires so much water to saturate it.
That’s what makes the ground crew so important this year. They are chipping away the roots of trees, which is very tiring work.
“The aircraft get on scene at first and start to pound away on the fire,” said Smith.
“The real heroes, in my opinion, are the guys on the ground with the picks, the shovels, the hoses that are working in terribly hot conditions, sometimes dangerous and sometimes that danger is self imposed.
“You get very, very caught up in the act of fighting fires in saving communities or saving people’s cabins.
“It’s a real personal fight for these guys on the ground and they have my deepest respect.”
That intense focus on saving communities is what gives the crews the energy to sustain them in this long fight. The entire team – pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, and support staff as well as the ground crews with picks, shovels and hoses – push forward to get those flames out.
“When you’ve saved a community or a subdivision, it’s extremely gratifying.”