Air Tankers a critical part of BC's wildfire season

By Tanya Cronin
June 8, 2016 - 4:41pm Updated: June 8, 2016 - 5:23pm

KAMLOOPS — They play a critical role in helping battle wildfires right across the province. 

With an early and somewhat volatile season already, air tankers have taken to the skies, slowing the spread of flames by dropping fire retardant and water on hotspots. 

Tankers are responsible for the initial attack when fires are reported, acting as a fire guard and as an eye in the sky for crews on the ground.

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When wildfires rage out of control, an essential part of the firefight comes from the sky.

"We primarily focus on initial attacks, so our mantra is hit hard, hit fast," says Michael Benson, Superintendent of the Provincial Air Tanker Program.

Flying into the flames, air tankers lay down fire retardant, it's all in a joint effort with ground firefighters who feverishly work to battle mother nature.

"What we're doing primarily is buying time for the crews on the ground, they're the ones that extinguish fires, we just try and contain it and slow it down to give them a leg up in actually putting fire out."

BC's air tanker fleet includes 24 aircraft, stationed at 17 bases throughout the province. The main base is in Kamloops where planes capable of carrying thousands of gallons of retardant and water, for a more concentrated drop, are dispatched. 

"They can pick up water and apply that directly to the flames to try and reduce its intensity, the two work really well hand in hand, so put a retardant ring around the fire and reduce the intensity within the fire by using the suppressant or the water delivered by skimmers or helicopters." 

Tinder dry conditions made for an early and active start to this year's wildfire season. Since April 1st, there have been 345 wildfires in BC, burning a significant amount of forest.

"Right now for the 2016 season, we've seen over 92,000 hectares burned, to compare that with the 2015 season, at this point there had been 45,000 hectares burned, so we're seeing almost twice that number," says Claire Allen, Provincial Fire Information Officer.
    
The vast majority of fires to date have been human caused. Fire officials urge the public to take precautions, and say even though a cooler shift in weather is on the way, it doesn't always mean a change in the fire index.

"Lots of precipitation and moisture coming in from an upper trough throughout the week, but lots of warm dry temperature and it's hard to say what we'll expect for the rest of the season at this point."
    
Every year, air tankers do an average of 520 missions. While June is typically a slower month, crews here are ready for action, taking off as the first line of defence against BC's wildfires. 

"That means 520 actual missions going out to fires, one mission could be 30 aircraft loads of retardant on board, or it could be 6 hours with our water skimming aircraft, so it really depends on the fire season that we have," says Benson.

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