Battalion of aircraft fight fires from the sky

August 26, 2018

Firefighters battling wildland blazes in Northwest Montana for the last month do a lot of grueling, dirty, tough work. But much of what they do would not be possible without the support of equipment that drop water on the fires, such as water tankers and helicopters.

Saturday, a team from the government-run Northern Air Operations, based in Saskatchewan, talked to local media about the aircraft used to fight wild fires.

The aircraft included a spotter plane, termed a “bird-dog” and two CL-215 planes, popularly known as “Super Scoopers.” The teams include two pilots and an engineer in each Scooper and two in the spotter.

The Super Scoopers and their pilots are the most visible members of firefighting efforts, as they have been featured skimming along the water’s edge to fill its two 600-gallon tanks in newspaper and TV accounts as well as on social media accounts.

But while the pilots love their work, they said they don’t see themselves as “rock stars.”

Ian Stevenson, 44, of Calgary, saw a CL-215 for the first time when he was 12 years old.

“When I saw one, I just thought they were amazing,” he said.

His initial enthusiasm for the massive craft carried on and he enrolled at the Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to learn how to fly planes.

He flew for commercial airlines for a decade, amassing nearly 6,000 flight-time hours before he was hired at Northern Air Operations. The agency won’t consider pilots for flying “Super Scoopers” until they have at least 3,000 hours at the controls.

Stevenson has been with Northern for 12 years and has flown the big planes, which weigh about 13 tons, for a decade.

“They are by far my favorite plan to fly,” Stevenson said. “It’s a pilot’s airplane, there aren’t any tricks to flying it and it does what you expect it to do.

“I’ve flown smaller and larger plans and it handles very nicely,” he said.

The teams work in four-hour shifts when they are dropping water.

The most pickups Stevenson has ever done was 99, but Friday, he did 27 while working on the nearly 12,000-acre Howe Ridge Fire that has been burning in Glacier National Park since Aug. 11.

The crew explained a “Super Scooper” has the ability to carry 10,000 pounds of jet fuel, but they typically launch with 7,500 so they have the ability to collect water.

The Scoopers have a two-door system and the tanks can be emptied at once or consecutively, depending on the situation. It takes 10 to 12 seconds to scoop out about 1,200 gallons.

Only 125 Scoopers have been made, all between the late 1960s and 1990.

Getting the big planes into the air costs significant money and while none of the Northern Air Operations team was willing to discuss the cost of one flight, Glacier National Park officials recently said a total of $1.8 million had been spent fighting the Howe Ridge Fire.

Norman Thomson, also a member of the Northern Air Operations team, explained that the Northwest Forest Fire Compact allows it to travel to other places to help with wildfires.

“It’s sort of like an international mutual aid agreement,” he explained. “If you need help and we can come, we will. If we need help and you can come to us, you do.

“We aren’t making money, we’re just hoping to cover our costs,” Thomson said.

The compact includes the states of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Yukon Territory, Alberta, Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

According to its website, the cooperative operating plan is to give assistance in prevention, preparedness, prescribed fire use, training, presuppression, suppression and control of wildland fires between the member agencies of the Northwest Wildland Fire Protection Agreement.

Pilot Brandon Robertson, also a big CL-215 fan, has been flying for 12 years, including five with Northern Air Operations.

“These planes are tanks and that’s a good feeling when we are flying over higher altitudes here than what we normally do,” Robertson said. “A lot of people don’t understand the difficulty in fighting wildfires. Some just think we should be able to drop the water and put them out, but these fires are thousands of acres in size.

“Some may smolder and when they do ignite, it may be a time when they aren’t noticed right away,” Stevenson said. “It’s not a static target, they are always moving and the wind and fuel conditions are huge variables. We are just trying to contain them.”

Reporter Scott Shindledecker can be reached at (406) 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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