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Are Canada’s water bombers ready for forest fires?

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Are Canada’s water bombers ready for forest fires?
Wildfires have forced thousands of Canadians to flee their homes already this year. As the season progresses, firefighters will use every method they can to fight back the flames. Nathaniel Dove looks at one key method - and the concerns about if they can hold up to another brutal campaign.

Wildfires have already started to burn across Canada this year, forcing thousands to evacuate in communities like Fort McMurray, Alta., and Fort Nelson, B.C.

One expert said he’s worried the backbone of Canada’s efforts to fight the flames may struggle if the country experiences a summer like 2023, which was the worst wildfire season ever recorded, when 18.5 million hectares of land burned.

“The water tanker fleet is old,” said John Gradek, an aviation industry expert and lecturer at McGill University’s aviation management program. “There are no similar pieces of equipment being built.”

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Global News asked every provincial and territorial government about the number, type and age of their firefighting aircraft.

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Some governments own and operate their own large fleets, while others contract a smaller number of aircraft for the season.

Gradek told Global News the CL-215s and 415s were Canada’s “mainstays” for decades of water bombing and some may be around 50 years old.

A CL415 water bomber performs at the Aero Gatineau Ottawa airshow in Gatineau on Saturday, September 16, 2023. Patrick Doyle/CP

Even while they’ve been maintained and refitted, he said they can require two hours of maintenance for every hour of flight. If Canada experiences a wildfire season like 2023, he said they may struggle to cope and perform their vital duty.

“As much as the agencies say that their airplanes are in good shape,” he said, “these are older. So we’ll see how (they fare) this summer.”

A spokesperson for the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which coordinates request for additional resources among provinces, said the country was at its highest level of preparedness for “over 100 days last summer,” meaning “resources are exhausted within the country” during that period.

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Alexandria Jones said it’s “hard to say” if fire agencies have enough aircraft this year because “sometimes more aircraft is needed than other times of the year.”

She stressed the provinces are continuing to work together to prepare for this season.

Which water bombers does Canada have?

Water bomber aircraft typically reduce the intensity of a fire and “don’t put fires out,” said Mike Westwick, fire information officer for the Northwest Territories.

Ground crews can then follow up on extinguishing, he said.

But planes are crucial, Gradek said.

Size and composition of the province’s and territories’ firefighting aircraft.Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador did not respond by deadline. Provincial and territorial governments

British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta have the largest fleets at 39, 28, and 18 aircraft, respectively, according to responses from government officials and public information.

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B.C. contracts the planes used in its water bombing efforts and does not itself operate CL-215s or 415s, instead using a variety of land-based tankers, smaller water skimmers like the Air Tractor AT-802F Fire Bosses and helicopters.

Conair Air Tractor AT802 Fire Bosses are parked on the tarmac in Abbotsford, B.C., Friday, April. 26, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns.

B.C.’s wildfire service directed questions about the age of the water bombers to the companies that own them but said it continues to update the aircraft B.C. operates and has “started the procurement process for additional aircraft.”

Ontario owns nine water bombers. The average age of Ontario’s CL-415s is approximately 24 years old, according to a government official.

Several aviation firms owned the rights to make the aircraft, was once called the Canadair, starting with the CL-215s in 1966, 215Ts — which current maker De Havilland Canada says have better handling and engines — in 1986 and the further upgraded the 415 model in 1991, according to the company’s website.

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The small water bomber Twin Otters, pontoon Turbo Beavers and helicopters are approximately 53, 55 and 24 years old, respectively, the Ontario official said, with upgrades planned “to ensure they remain fully operational for the next 25 years.”

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Alberta operates and contracts 18 airtankers, including four CL-215Ts, four smaller Fire Bosses skimmers and 10 bombers that drop fire retardant.

“This year we have new strategies and are implementing new tactics, including having firefighters prepared and positioned earlier for wildfire response,” Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Melissa Story said in a statement.

“We are leveraging night operations for the third season with additional aircraft added to the fleet. This initiative allows us to fight fires in the overnight hours while wildfire behavior is typically more subdued,” she said, and includes night vision helicopters.

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Story did not provide the ages for their contracted fleet.

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The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency owns six CL-215Ts, four retardant airtankers and seven coordinating aircraft.

The oldest aircraft is approximately 70 years old and is a land-based tanker and the newest 215T is about three years old “since being repurposed,” spokesperson Kara Slobodzian said in a statement.

Manitoba has seven air tankers and nine helicopters on long-term contract, though the response from the provincial government did not provide further details.

Westwick said the Northwest Territories operates two Electra L-188, which are a large land-based airtanker, in addition to two Canadair CL-215s and two groups of four FireBoss 802s and eight helicopters.

“We work with a local contractor to run the fleet and they ensure our fleet is in good repair. All are operation ready when called upon,” he said and stressed the value of the FireBoss aircraft, which he said are often discounted in conversations about effective air support for fire efforts.

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“You need different types of aircraft for different kinds of jobs. These aircraft can deliver 800 gallons of water per drop each, so that’s about 3200 per drop per group. This is a solid amount of water. For reference, the CL-215 drops about 1200 gallons per drop,” Westwick said.

“They are also able to operate in different types of terrain which may be restricted for larger airtankers. They are able to scoop from smaller bodies of water. They are also able to operate for a number of hours without refueling or returning to base.”

The territory also has eight helicopters, which Westwick said are “critical to wildfire management,” as they “can go to places fixed wing aircraft can’t and hit precision targets on fires. This is crucial for success.”

New Brunswick has eight land-based Air Bosses and four support aircraft, Yukon has five Fire Bosses and a coordinating aircraft, while Nova Scotia has four helicopters and is replacing them with financial assistance from the federal government.

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Fort McMurray wildfire: Crews working to protect evacuated neighbourhoods

Prince Edward Island has no firefighting aircraft but maintains “maintain mutual aid agreements with all Canadian provinces and territories (administered through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre,” said government spokesperson Katie Cudmore.

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Cudmore wrote that PEI wildfires can typically handled through ground-based operations, that the province had eight “small” wildfires last each and that they were all contained within a day.

Many provinces and territories said then can contract additional aircraft if necessary.

Representatives for Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador did not respond by deadline.

Where does the risk stand now?

Speaking on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) said the country was at a “Level Two” forest fire alert status.

Alexandria Jones told Global News that means “requests are done on a ‘first come, first served,’ basis.”

“We were at a national preparedness level across Canada of [Level Five] for over 100 days last summer. So at a Level Five, resources are exhausted within the country,” she said.
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As the season progresses and as more forest fires ignite, the alarm can go up to Level Five, when a national committee, comprised of members from all wildfire agencies from across the country, decide how to divvy up resources.

“It always comes down to public safety first,” she said, explaining the criteria.

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Fort McMurray wildfire: Crews working to protect evacuated neighbourhoods

De Havilland Canada is developing a newer model of the CL-415 called the DHC-515.

But it will not be ready until the middle of this decade – and European countries have lined up to buy the first 22, according to a company statement in 2022.

“De Havilland Canada expects first deliveries of the DHC-515 by the middle of the decade, with deliveries of aircraft 23 and beyond to begin at the end of the decade,” it states.

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It a statement, the company told Global News it has “not yet begun to accept orders from any country or province other than the six European countries” that already gave letters of intent to purchase new aircraft.

It said discussions were beginning with several Canadian provinces that already operates 215s and 415s.

Gradek also said the federal government should create a national firefighting air service, to help Canadians as climate change progresses, and play a bigger role in helping get more water bombers.

“If we’re really serious about wildfire firefighting, we need a resource that we can basically deploy rapidly across the country,” he said.

A spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada directed questions about firefighting resources back to the provinces and territories.

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