The B.C. Wildfire Service says it won’t be using ‘groundbreaking’ night vision technology for its aerial firefighting efforts because it didn’t have time to train crews — even though Alberta Wildfire has already successfully begun rolling out the new technology this season.
“We need to make sure there are procedures in place and that those procedures are well understood by everybody before we start using it on the fireline,” B.C. Wildfire Service aviation preparedness officer Bryce Moreira said.
“One of the biggest risk is having an incident or occurrence where there’s a miscommunication between ground crews and helicopters — and potentially someone getting injured because people are not fully aware of what’s happening at night.”
The technology, approved by Transport Canada, includes having trained pilots wear night vision goggles and fly a specialized helicopter that has light-sensitive gauges, a spotlight and a 900 liter tank under its fuselage for dousing flames.
Global News also spoke to several B.C. firefighters who said they were frustrated with the lack of the technology’s use during the Keremeos Creek wildfire battle, believing it would’ve significantly helped in containing the blaze. Global News has agreed not to identify them since they say they would face repercussions in their professional roles for speaking out.
The B.C. Wildfire Service successfully tested the technology two years ago, while Alberta Wildfire conducted its first test run earlier this year in June — but it was Alberta that was able to implement it into its operations only weeks later.
“It’s been a good addition to our toolbox,” said Alberta Wildfire’s Melissa Story, who adds that the new instruments have given them roughly an additional 12 hours of aerial firefighting capabilities through the evening and overnight.
“So giving us the ability to be on a fire 24 hours is only going to help with suppression efforts and make them that much faster.”
She says, so far, Alberta Wildfire is working with one specialized helicopter, two trained pilots and using as many as four sets of night vision goggles.
The B.C. Wildifre Service says the main reason they weren’t able to train their crews in implementing the new technology, in the two years since it got its seal of approval, has been due to last year’s busy wildfire season — including when the village of Lytton burned to the ground.
“We were focused on response and further into the fall we were focused on rehabilitation and making sure that our ground crews were ready and our staff were ready for future fire seasons,” said Moreira.
Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon said watching Alberta Wildfire use the technology has been ‘frustrating’ because they’re also contracting a B.C. company, named Talon Helicopters, to do the job.
“It is ground breaking in Alberta and they’re utilizing this equipment out of British Columbia,” said Falcon.
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“We’ve got the technology, we have the highest trained pilots in the world and we’re just not using them in B.C., but they’re taking advantage of them in Alberta. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The B.C. Wildfire Service says it’s continuing to work with B.C. based aviation companies in researching the best way to successfully integrate night vision flying into its operations.
It adds that there is no clear timeline on when that may happen — but when it does, Moreira says it will not begin with wildfire suppression, but instead with wildfire detection.
“One of the primary focuses for night vision technology will be detection,” he said.
“Because if we can detect these wildfires sooner and we can get crews to them and we can get intelligence from the field into our fire response offices, then we are able to use that.”