With so many fires this summer, the Castlegar Airport has been buzzing with the sounds of helicopters and airtankers as they fight to keep the flames at bay.
Though there are usually one Electra airtanker, one bird dog, and two helicopters stationed out of Castlegar, now there are over 20 helicopters a day, depending on deployment, and even more planes, including a fleet of air tractors (parents and Pixar enthusiasts might recognize these as being similar to Dusty from Planes).
According to Karlie Shaughnessy, fire communications specialist at the Southeast Fire Centre, there are currently 54 helicopters “contracted out for use on fire in the southeast,” though there were only 22 contracted helicopters stationed at the airport on Friday.
It was a bad day for the choppers, as visibility was extremely low. A number went out, but were forced to turn back again.
Doug Devries, captain of a Bell 212 helicopter, was dropping water on the fires near Renata and Deer Creek Park, but couldn’t get to either area on Friday.
“It’s been two attempts to get out, and I’ve gotten past the damn, past the mill, and then that’s it. Turned around due to low visibility with the smoke,” he said. “It’s been like that for … four days.”
The Bell helicopter is a twin-engine, medium-size helicopter. The medium helicopters make up the bulk of the fleet currently stationed out of Castlegar Airport, but there’s also one heavy and a number of light helicopters.
The heavy is a Sikorsky S-61, which was previously stationed in Afghanistan where it was used for transporting soldiers and freight. Darrell Vivian, an engineer, was with the helicopter in Afghanistan and is now helping fight the Deer Creek Park fire. The Sikorsky weighs 8000 lbs and carries a bucket with a capacity of 700 gallons.
The lights are mostly one-engine, AStar helicopters.
The two helicopters usually stationed out of Castlegar belong to Duncan Wassick, owner of Dam Helicopters. One is an AStar, and the other is a Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) Bo 105, which is a medium chopper.
The AStar is working on a fire south of Rossland.
“His job there is bird-dogging, and moving the crews up and down on the hill, as well as acting as … medevac aircraft in case someone gets hurt,” said Wassick.
Bird-dogs are flown by air attack officers who assess the fires and decide which aircraft are needed to best fight the flames.
The light helicopter is also used for admin work to transport fire managers between different sites where they can meet with incident commanders.
The MBB Bo 105 is used for initial attack, and does water bucketing.
None of the airtankers were around on Friday, but Bob Kitchen and Randy Grant from Sentinel Airport Logistics (the company in charge of airport operations for Castlegar) explained that the airtankers drop retardant, which is used to setup a guard, stop the advance of the fire, and steer the fire.
The tankers can carry 12,000 litres of retardant each.
Matt Schneider and Jen Weeks are loader techs and load retardant into the planes at Castlegar Airports.
“In the mornings I come in and recirculate the tanks, that way I get all the mix [that settled] in the bottom. I get it all mixed up really nice. It takes about an hour in the morning,” explains Schneider.
Schneider says he’s done as many as 48 loads in a day, and as little as none. When he and Weeks aren’t loading planes they’re doing maintenance around the fire centre.
Though most flights were grounded on Friday, this summer has generally seen a lot of activity out on the tarmac.
“Even in 2003, which was labeled to be the firestorm of BC, we never saw the activity because it didn’t affect our area directly,” said Grant. “So we had a bit of traffic out of here, but … in 2003 it was nowhere near to what [we’ve had] in … the last 20 days.”