Interview with an Alberta firefighter

Above: Alberta Firefighters

The excerpts below are from a Calgary Guardian article featuring an interview with Natalie Romain, a firefighter working for the government of Alberta.

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CG: “How long have you been a Wildland Firefighter?”

This is my fourth season.  I spent two years as a Helitack Member and one year as a Helitack Leader in the Fort McMurray Wildfire Management Area.  This fourth season I am now a Unit Crew Sub-Leader in the Edson Wildfire Management Area.

CG: “How many crews are there in Alberta and where are they stationed?”

Natalie Romain
Natalie Romain

We have ten Wildfire Management Areas in Alberta.  Across the province there are 64 four-person Helitack Crews, 2 eight-person Helitack Crews, 9 seven-person Rappel Crews, 8 twenty-person Unit Crews, and 35 eight-person Firetack Crews.  All the crews are very mobile and can be moved where needed most.

CG: “What are the tools of the trade?  Obviously there aren’t any fire hydrants in the forest, so what do you and your crew need to do your jobs effectively?”

Each crew plays a different role.  I am on a Unit Crew which normally fight larger wildfires, so our equipment may be different compared to initial attack Helitack Crews.  Our trucks are fitted with one mark 3 pump, a pump kit (nozzles, stranglers, fuel line, and random jewelry like quick connects and wyes), suction hose, two 50-gallon Jerry cans and five boxes of 1 ½” hose, which is a total of 2,000 feet.  With a good water source, like a river or a creek, we can get to work and get a lot accomplished.  Each sub-crew of four carries the exact same equipment layout so multiply this by five just for one unit crew!  We also carry chainsaws and hand tools (shovels and pulaskis).

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Alberta Firefighters
Alberta Firefighters. Natalie Romain is second from left.

All photos were provided by the Government of Alberta.

Reporter flies air tanker simulator on Fort McMurray Fire

David Common, a reporter for CBC News, got some experience in an air tanker simulator, “flying” an Air Spray L-188 Electra and getting an idea of what it is like to drop retardant on the fire at Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Oddly, in the video they don’t mention that the cockpit scene was shot in a simulator.

Alberta to use drones to help find origin of fire at Fort McMurray

Reuters is reporting that the Alberta Government will use drones to help narrow down the point of origin of the huge wildfire that has burned 157,000 hectares (387,000 acres) at Fort McMurray and forced the evacuation of the entire city of more than 80,000 residents.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…Elevated Robotic Services, which has also deployed drones for mining and construction companies, has contracts with the Alberta government and insurance broker Hub International Ltd [HBINT.UL], said Mat Matthews, the Edmonton company’s operations and safety manager.

The drones use cameras outfitted with infrared, ultraviolet and traditional optical cameras to pinpoint the hottest part of the fire and trace it to its source based on time, wind and other factors. The cameras will shoot about 800 images, which are then stitched together in a process called fire-mapping.

The work begins on Tuesday, coordinated with the other air traffic, including air tankers and helicopters.

The images, if successful, will zero down to a spot on the ground with about a 30-foot (9-meter) radius where the fire is believed to have started. From there, investigators will search on foot for the cause, such as a lightning strike or campfire.

Using the more traditional method of gathering images from helicopters, the fire’s cause could be narrowed only to half an acre, a much larger area to search on the ground, said Ron Windmueller, owner of Droneology, which supplies equipment and other services to Elevated.

Downward wind from helicopter blades can disturb the scene, forcing the pilot to stay about 1,000 feet in the air. A drone can capture images from 100 feet.

Air tanker slides off runway at Manning, Alberta

The crew of two was transported to a hospital for evaluation.

(UPDATED at 8:59 a.m. MDT, May 7, 2016)

The Whistler Question reports that the pilot of the air tanker that slid off the runway at Manning, Alberta “suffered a medical episode” and the co-pilot was forced to land the plane. This occurred while the aircraft was approaching to land.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…During the emergency landing at the airport strip, the plane veered off the runway and came to rest in the ditch, luckily without catching fire.

The co-pilot was not injured and walked away from the crash, but the pilot suffered a cut to the head, though he was conscious and breathing when first responders arrived.

His injuries are not considered life-threatening.

Global News had a similar report.

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(Originally published at 9:42 p.m. MDT May 5, 2016)

Above: Alberta premier Rachel Notley confirms the air tanker incident at Manning.

An air tanker slid off the runway Thursday at the Manning, Alberta airport. There were no fatalities but the two pilots were being evaluated at a hospital. The air tanker had been working a fire near Manning before the incident.

T 45 at Manning Alberta
An air tanker at Manning Alberta slid off the runway on Thursday. CTV news photo.

CBC news quoted Eleanor Miclette, the acting chief administrative officer for the County of Northern Lights, who said the air crew lost control of the plane’s steering and crash-landed at the end of the runway around 4 p.m. The aircraft, a Convair, leaked fuel following the crash but there was no fire.

The position of the aircraft in the photo above is similar to that in the 2010 off-runway excursion of Neptune’s Tanker 44, a P2V, when a hydraulic failure upon landing led to inadequate brakes. The position is reminiscent of Minden’s Tanker 48 in 2014 that had a hydraulic failure causing the nose wheel to collapse while landing.

Tanker 45 at JEFFCO
Conair’s Tanker 45 at JEFFCO airport near Denver, June 2012 during the High Park Fire. In the Canadian aircraft registry, it is listed as a Convair 340-32 manufactured in 1953. Photo by Shane Harvey.

Alberta cuts wildfire suppression budget by $15 million

The cuts mean air tanker contracts end on August 16.

Air Spray executives
Ravi Saip and Paul Lane in front of one of their Electras at Chico, California, on March 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CBCnews:

With wildfires already spreading in Alberta, one air tanker company is raising the alarm on cuts to the province’s fire suppression budget.
Paul Lane, the vice president of Air Spray, said the company’s contract was cut by 25 per cent in the recent budget.

“The province has reduced the operating contracts, for not just us but the other air tanker operator, from 123 days to 93 days,” he said.

“Effectively that will mean that all the air tanker assets in Alberta will come up contract by August 16. The province has no guarantee of availability after that period of those air tanker assets.”

The province reduced the overall wildfire suppression budget by about $15 million.

Premier Rachel Notley said the budget reflects base levels of funding and that emergency funds will kick in if needed for more fire suppression.

“All that happened is a high level of expenditure engaged last year because of the high level of fires was reduced back to the normal amount,” she said. ..

Pilot killed in Alberta air tanker crash last month identified

For several days the name of the Conair pilot killed in the May 22 crash of an air tanker in Alberta was not released, but now we know that his name was William Hilts.

Below is an excerpt from the Edmonton Sun:

Though the family of William Hilts is grieving his loss after the plane he was piloting crashed near Cold Lake, Alta., on May 22, where he was fighting wildfires, they have found comfort in the outpouring of condolences and gratitude from the community.

“It gives us a side of him that we never thought of. We always thought of him as a pilot more than a firefighter, but then you realize the role that those guys play in the community,” said his father, Stuart Hilts.

The 38-year-old pilot was fighting wildfires in an Air Tractor AT-802 “Fire Boss” amphibious water bomber for Conair Aerial Firefighting, under contract to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), when his plane crashed on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range on May 22 around 5:20 p.m…

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, friends, and co-workers of Mr. Hilts.

Pilot killed in Alberta air tanker crash

From the Toronto Sun:

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“The lone occupant of a firefighting plane that crashed Friday afternoon [May 22, 2015] in northern Alberta has died, a company spokesman confirmed.

Jeff Berry of Conair Aerial Firefighting told Postmedia Network that the plane, an AT-802 Fireboss amphibious water bomber, crashed just after 4:30 p.m. MDT, about 40 km north of Cold Lake near the Saskatchewan border.

Crews are fighting an out-of-control 300 ha wildfire in the area, in the vicinity of Burnt Lake, Alta., near the CFB Cold Lake’s weapons range and an Imperial Oil facility.

Berry said the 37-year old pilot was no stranger to fighting wildfires.

“This was his fourth season, so he was well-experienced,” Berry said.

Berry said the single-seater plane was relatively new, built in 2009.

AT-802F Fire Boss
File photo of one of Conair’s AT-802F Fire Boss air tankers. Photo by Peter Unmuth.

He expressed his condolences to the friends and family of the pilot, and expressed his gratitude to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and Cold Lake Search and Rescue for their quick response.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada was sending an investigation team, expected to arrive Saturday morning, TSB spokesman Julie Leroux confirmed.

Cold Lake is about 230 km northeast of Edmonton.”

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Our sincere condolences go out to the the pilot’s family, friends, and to Conair.

The fire is in the Cold Lake Weapons Range, 40 km (25 miles) north of Cold Lake near Burnt Lake, and has burned approximately 3000 hectares (7400 acres).