When it comes to fighting fires aerially, you’ve got your bird dogs and your air tankers. The bird dog—either an airplane or a helicopter—carries the air attack officer and leads an air tanker group into battle. Its officer directs all air traffic, constantly assesses the fire and the best plan of attack, and maintains contact with ground crews, environment offices and other aircraft flying in the vicinity. In short, it’s the boss.
As for air tankers, they are the crucial sheepdogs of the team. Their job is to stop the fast growth rate of the fires—like keeping the cattle in the pen. All this helps when you could have two million hectares (Yukon in 2004) or 3.4 million hectares (NWT in 2014) burning in a single fire season. The tireless ground and air crews work around the clock and couldn’t do their jobs without the other.
The NWT government’s air tanker models, the twin-engine CL-215s, scoop up 5,455 litres of water from lakes like giant yellow pelicans—or load up on synthetic fire retardant—and drop their load onto the flames.
However, there’s a new fleet of air tankers scheduled to arrive in the NWT in 2017. Called the “Fireboss,” the aircraft is smaller than the NWT’s current water bombers, which means two things: one pilot instead of two, and loading up in smaller lakes than the CL-215s require. Although its smaller size means it takes in less water—3,025 litres tops—the fact that it can fill up at smaller lakes closer to the fires they fight will help the air tankers get more liquid on the fires faster.