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100-foot forest firefighting aircraft in northern Alberta

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A rotation of firefighting aircraft will take place at the 13 firefighting aircraft bases across the province in the coming weeks, coordinated by the Alberta Wildfire Coordination Centre in Edmonton.

Tanker bases are located in and around communities in Alberta, such as Lac La Biche, Hinton, Slave Lake, Rocky Mountain House and Springbank near Calgary.

Firefighting planes, air tractors and more in the fight against the forest fires in Alberta

At the Lac La Biche air tanker base, the tarmac is filling up this week with planes fighting the season's wildfires. One plane in particular is taking up a lot of space. With a 100-foot wingspan and 104 feet nose-to-tail length, the Electra Lockheed L188 covers a lot of ground – whether it's on the ground or in the air.

Electra aircraft and firefighters

This week, one of Alberta's nine tanker aircraft groups is using Lac La Biche tanker base as its home base. The Electra is sharing the runway with a group of four AT-802 aircraft known as Air Tractors. The tractors are a common sight in southern Alberta. The aircraft, called skimmers, can land on bodies of water to refill their water tanks and are maneuverable and small enough to find and load water on rough terrain.

While the Air Tractors are skimmers capable of sucking up to 3,100 liters of water in less than 15 seconds, the Electra can carry almost four times that payload of fire retardant – about 11,365 liters – but must land at a tanker base, where the payload is replenished and refilled for each mission by ground support teams.

“Electra uses a long-term retardant,” says Colby Lachance, a public information officer for the Lac La Biche forest district, explaining that if you pour water on an active fire, it will dry out quickly, while a long-term retardant lasts longer and acts as a barrier to aid firefighting because it is less likely to evaporate.

The Electra's crew consists of two pilots, she continued, and despite its size, it can move quickly when fighting fires.

“Although the Electra is larger than the Air Tractors or the CL215, it is much faster in the sky,” said Lachance.

According to Lachance, the Electra reaches a cruising speed of 555 kilometers per hour, or just over 300 knots. The tractors have a top speed of about 300 kilometers per hour.

While the firefighting aircraft will be stationed at the Lac La Biche tanker base during the wildfire season, Lachance explains that none of these aircraft will be in continuous operation 24 hours a day.

“The group of firefighting aircraft and air skimmers rotate around the province and are sent to areas where there is a need or a high fire risk,” she told Lakeland This Week, adding that the Electra, which also has a contract with the province, is also operating in various regions.

The extent of a particular fire threat, she said, will determine how long the aircraft will be based at Lac La Biche at any given time, which could be a week or more, depending on the situation in the province.

When a wildfire occurs outside the Lac La Biche forest area, she explained, firefighting aircraft fly to that location and conduct aerial firefighting drills. If the wildfire danger is higher, they fly to another firefighting aircraft base to ensure the fire can be fought more quickly than in a lower fire danger area where a wildfire is less likely.

In addition to the Air Tractor and the Electra, the province also uses the CL215 air tanker, which is deployed as needed depending on the wildfire situation and danger. In the past, fixed-wing aircraft have included the DC-6 and even B-26 aircraft converted from previous military operations.

Another aircraft found at tanker bases is the “Bird Dog”. In Lac La Biche it is a Cessna 208B, which serves as an observation and reconnaissance aircraft in the fight against forest fires. Forestry officials in the aircraft guide firefighting aircraft to the fires and report on the accuracy and effectiveness of the drops.

“This is the aircraft that the air assault officer flies to give information and instructions on which fire areas the planes should be dropped on,” Lachance explained.

Other aircraft use Lac La Biche Airport and other rural airstrips during the high-fire season, including contracted helicopters with “Bambi buckets” that hang beneath the helicopters and can be submerged in bodies of water to deliver 300 to 1,200 litres of water to a fire.

The Alberta Wildfire Coordination Centre will coordinate tanker crews and bases for all 10 of the province's forest reserves. The air support contracts run from May to October and are expected to provide ground support to approximately 850 wildfire fighters in Alberta.