Wildfires grow by the second, and they can get out of control fast. The bigger they get, the harder they are to handle – and the more likely it is that they’ll end up threatening a community or other critical resources. That’s why it’s important to get out ahead of wildfires as soon as we can. And that’s exactly what our airtankers help us accomplish.
Airtankers are special planes that carry fire retardant, foam or water. Their speed and altitude range mean that they can reach a wildfire much faster with better access than ground vehicles. Once there, they drop their load, reducing the intensity of the fire. This helps keep the wildfire from spreading until the wildland firefighters on the ground can arrive on the scene to put it out.
To help ensure our airtankers can get to where they’re needed as quickly as possible, we have 14 support bases in strategic locations around the province. We have nine airtanker groups, each of which can move to any base – making it easy for our planes to refuel, reload and be ready for the next wildfire.
It goes without saying that flying close to wildfires can be dangerous – which is why safety always takes priority, and teamwork is important. Each airtanker group is led by an air attack officer (or ‘AAO’ for short), flying in the lead plane (called a “birddog”). The AAO acts as the ‘eye in the sky’ for the group and firefighters on the ground. Usually first on the scene, they will assess the wildfire, come up with a plan of attack, and then lead the airtankers in the team to the target.
The AAO communicates with the firefighting teams on the ground, providing them with critical information about the wildfire and its behavior. Some of this information comes from a Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) camera system which is built into the plane. This system allows us to view the wildfire and scan for hotspots in all kinds of conditions – even when smoke from the fire makes visibility very poor. This information helps our firefighters put out the fire quickly, safely, and effectively – another great example of how teamwork, training, and appropriate equipment all help us tackle wildfire emergencies anywhere in Alberta.