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Water bombers key in battle to beat back Manitoba wildfires

WATCH: This Winkler Fire Department video shows fire crews getting help from overhead as they support efforts to contain wildfires near Ashern, Man.

Forest fires rage across Manitoba. In a 24 hour period, seven different wildfires were sparked in the Province.

As of Thursday, the total number of blazes fought by crews this so far this season was 173, well above the 20-year average of 105 for this time of year.

A Province of Manitoba spokesperson said crews from all around the province have mobilized to support efforts to control the fires, including:

  • five water bombers
  • three bird-dog planes that help manage airspace around fires
  • 80 departmental firefighters
  • 100 emergency firefighters
  • staff from the Office of the Fire Commissioner
  • local fire departments

An additional 120 firefighters came in from Ontario to help on the ground, plus four water bombers from Quebec.

READ MORE: Hundreds flee as forest fire rages near Sapotaweyak Cree Nation

The fight from the air is key in not only extinguishing flames that are rising up above the tree line, but from stopping the fire from burning out-of-control.

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“They’re trained to stop the fire from expanding,” Alan Lukala said.

Lukala is an archivist with the Canadian Bush Plane Heritage Center in Sault St. Marie and said water bombers often work on a perimeter system, which is why the planes are often seen dropping water ahead of the fire.

“A lot of the times they put it right on the fire to extinguish it, but if they feel it may get out of control they will draw a circle around it so it won’t exit the perimeter,” Lukala said.

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He said the planes will either drop water, or a mix of water or fire retardant, which gives the water a red tinge.

WATCH: Viewer video shows water bomber over Cochrane, Alta.

Viewer video shows water bomber over Cochrane
Viewer video shows water bomber over Cochrane

Lukala said the most common water bomber in Canada is the CL-415.

It’s capable of holding 6,140 litres of water, which is the equivalent of 33 bathtubs filled to the top.

They also take only 12 seconds to fill on their 450-meter run along the top of the water.

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“The planes are larger, and they’re able to cover a further distance,” Lukala said.

In 2013, Manitoba added a fourth CL-415 to its fleet, which also includes two CL-215 aircraft.

WATCH: Water bombers work to douse a blaze near West Hawk Lake (May 2016)

Waterbombers douse blaze near West Hawk Lake
Waterbombers douse blaze near West Hawk Lake

The technology has come a long way.  Decades ago fires were fought with planes dropping bags full of water.

“But that didn’t work out so well,” Lukala said. “So then they had something named ‘roll over tanks’ and that’s something that went over top of the floats of the plane.  Now the smaller planes have something that go into the floats itself. The larger water bombers are able to skim across the water.”

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READ MORE: Evacuations continue for northeast Manitoba First Nations communities

According to the fire situation report issued through Manitoba Sustainable Development, there were 53 fires burning Thursday in Manitoba.  10 were listed as out-of-control, eight were being held, and 35 were under control.

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