Alberta Wildfire is using a new tool it hopes will give it an edge in fighting wildfires: a night wildfirefighting helicopter.
The helicopter was used on several fires during the 2023 wildfire season, including those burning near Little Red River Cree Nation, Edson and East Prairie Metis Settlement, to help drop water on fires, conduct reconnaissance and transport personnel.
This past wildfire season was the worst in Alberta history. A total of 1,094 forest fires burned more than 2.2 million hectares; The previous record was 1.35 million hectares burned in 1981.
Alberta is at the beginning of a five-year contract to test the helicopter and is believed to be the only province in the country that currently has one. It also tested the helicopter in 2022.
Talon, the Richmond, B.C., company with which Alberta Wildfire has a contract, said it previously conducted a nighttime firefighting test with BC Wildfire in 2020 for two nights, but has not conducted further operations with the province of B.C. .
“It’s fast. It’s very capable,” said Aaron Barnhardt, Alberta Wildfire provincial helicopter specialist.
“But the most important thing is the night vision technology… The people in the helicopter wear night vision goggles. They amplify the light up to 60,000 times… which allows us to navigate, see dangers, identify active parts of a forest fire “.
According to Talon, the helicopter has a 900-liter water tank, which can be filled in just 20 seconds, and its internal and external lighting has been modified to allow pilots to use night vision goggles.
“It gives us another tool to work with,” Barnhardt said, adding that crew members will need specialized training to use the night vision goggles.
“Night firefighting can be more effective due to lower temperatures and higher humidity, and I think it’s something our organization could do better at. We identified it as something we could work on and this aircraft is a tool to support not only airstrikes “Extinguish fires at night, but can help support firefighting on the ground, such as heavy equipment and crews.”
Best for smaller wildfires
Mike Flannigan, BC Innovation Research Chair for Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Sciences at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, said fighting a fire at night has advantages, but also challenges.
“You have to be very careful because visibility, even with technology, is still reduced during the day,” he said.
“Fires are usually quiet at night, but situations like what we’re seeing in California right now and what we saw before in Maui: fires can rage at night… The helicopter is not going to be very efficient unless it’s a small fire”.
Despite that, Flannigan said the helicopter could be a game-changer.
“If the implementation is successful in Alberta, other fire management agencies across Canada will look at it and look at the lessons learned in Alberta,” he said.