Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Patrol

  So, a big part of my summer flying up north consisted of doing whats called " Smoke Patrol " for the local forestry department. Up here they're called the " ENR" , for  Environment and Natural Resources.

  On no particular schedule they'd call us up and request a plane ( and pilot ) to fly one or more of their guys around and do a patrol of the district for any new fires and to get updates on existing fires.

  Most of the time I flew with the same ENR guy. Occasionally when he was busy, they'd send up someone else, but most of the time it was me and Smoky the Bear. 

  Smoky had been doing this job for a long time. In fact, he'd moved further up the ranks in ENR than they would normally have someone out doing patrol. When things got busy later in the season, he'd have his hands full actually coordinating the actual fighting of the fires rather than the somewhat mundane task of buzzing around looking for new ones.

  The only thing was, during a patrol, he'd be able to have a first hand look at what the fire was doing, where it was, what kinds of fuels and terrain it was in and be that much better equipped to fight it. If someone else was to go up and do the initial assessment, the information they brought back to him was sometimes lacking... If you want something done right.....

  Anyhow. Smoky's office would call us up, usually in the morning, and book the plane for the afternoon. Smoke Patrol was usually done in 3-4 hour blocks and started typically around 2. Start too early and the fires might still be laying down from overnight dew. 2 was usually when things started to peak temperature-wise. Typical summer afternoons also meant thunderstorms, whose lightning causes 90% of the fires in the first place. If you went too early, you might miss the very early stages of a fresh fire where a helicopter or ground crew could quickly put it out.

  I'd fuel the plane right up, giving us a solid 4.5 hours of flight time. Occasionally we'd fuel up and go back out again later if things were really hopping, but usually it was just one 3-4 hour trip. The Territory is divided up into several fire districts and our district could be covered in 4 hours, depending on how many active fires there were.

 Smoky would show up and give me a brief overview of our route, usually referencing lakes, ridges, hills, towns, rivers, etc. I'd convert that into a short text message to my flight follower giving a very rough route with waypoints we all recognized. Smoky's office gave him a little briefcase-GPS tracker device which we'd set up in the back seat. I had a commercial tracker unit as well clipped to the side of the cockpit. We'd strap into the Mighty Skymaster and sweat our way through a quick run-up, before we blasted off and up into cooler air,

   It gets pretty hot in the plane on the ground, but in the air, we had " air conditioning ". Nothing so fancy as compressed refrigerant, but instead, I had a little fly window on my side that I could open and blast in 180 mile an hour air into the cockpit.

  We'd usually have a list of coordinates that they pulled from their storm monitoring program that listed clusters of lightning strikes from storms the previous day. These would be likely spots for new fires, which we'd check out. We'd also have a list of reported fires, from people on the ground or more often, passing aircraft. Up here there are a limited amount of roads, so spotting a fire from a passing car was pretty unlikely. Later in the season, we'd also have a list of active fires that we would monitor.

  Arriving on station at a new fire, I'd set up an orbit around 1000 feet and circle the fire a few times for Smoky to do his assessment. If this was a new fire, he'd also do an " ISM " report and radio it in. I'm pretty sure ISM stands for Initial Smoke Message, but I'm not 100% on that. In my head, I always thought of it as I Smell Money. A new fire meant I'd have at least one more flight to check on it, more if it got bigger and they were going to action it.

  As we'd orbit, Smoky would be recording fuel type, terrain, distance to nearest water source and a host of other details. These got recorded on the ISM report and then called in on the VHF radio we had installed in the plane for them. I'd provide temperature on the ground, wind direction and speed. Temperature derived from our temperature at altitude and corrected for lapse rate to the ground. Wind direction and speed were best guesses based on what I observed at altitude, plus visible signs on the ground, tree movement, water ripples, smoke, etc. I was pretty accurate with this as you needed to be able to figure this out for flying floats, and honestly, its not that hard.

  After the ISM was completed, we'd usually have to climb up to get better radio reception and range, so we'd either start the climb, or if we planned to map the fire, we'd duck lower and do the mapping first before calling it in.

  Mapping out the fire meant flying the perimeter of the fire as close as you could, while Smoky used a handheld GPS to get record the ground track so they could upload it into their fire map database. It also allowed them to calculate total area of the fire in Hectares. This was pretty important, so I assume a degree of their funding calculations were done based on reported hectares of fires for the season.

  Down we'd go to 200-500 feet depending on terrain and visibility. I'd usually slow to about 120 miles an hour and drop a notch of flaps. Flying the perimeter of a fire was fun and challenging, Fires are not nice and round, they often have "fingers" that run out from the fire that might only be a couple hundred feet wide. Sometimes the fingers were so long and thin it would be tough to make the turns to keep yourself over the fire, so you occasionally " took in some green ", where you ended up flying over unburnt ground. I'd usually cut in over the fire to " take in some black " and even things out, so the total size was accurate even if the actual map wasn't.

   Helicopters would do mapping too and they could do it much more accurately then me. If the actual map was critical, they'd send a helo out to do the mapping later. We were "ad-hoc" chartered too, where the helo's were usually on a fixed contract for a certain number of hours for the whole season, I think it was 300 hours. If it was a slow season, they'd send the helos up to burn off those hours doing something productive as they were going to pay for it anyways even if they didn't use it.

  The trick with mapping too, was to make sure that you " cut-off " the GPS track. You had to completely encircle the fire, with your ending track running over where you began the track, closing the loop. If they stopped the GPS tracker short, all they got was a circular line on the map and the computer couldn't calculate the area inside, Down low, concentrating on flying the perimeter, it can be easy to mistake where you started the track, so you made sure to pick a good landmark when you started. Picking part of the fire didn't work as it all looks the same, you needed a lake, a ridge or swamp, something distinct.

  Mapping was fun and challenging, probably my favorite part of Smoke Patrol. Mapping out an actively burning fire was another challenge as well. You had to navigate the burnt part, but you also had to deal with the burning side as well, the " head " of the fire. You wanted to fly as close to it as you could to get an accurate map, but now you also had flames up to a couple hundred feet high, as well as a column of smoke and hot air to get around or through, depending on the wind. If the wind was light, you could usually duck down low and duck under the smoke, beside the flames and get pretty close to the edge. If the wind was up though, you either had to go through the smoke down low or cut around it so wide as take in a lot of unburnt ground ahead of the fire.  I'm not a huge fan of flying down low in low visibility and flying through heavy smoke and ash was hard on the plane and its air filters, so it was a tough call sometimes. On really big fires, sometimes you took in huge mounts of unburnt ground to get around the head and sometimes you just couldn't map it.

  Flying through smoke always left tell-tale signs on the props, windshield and leading edge of the wings, so the Boss always knew too. I was to avoid it when practicable, but we all knew sometimes you had to go through the smoke a little.

  I really regret not taking more pictures of this part of the job. The smoke creates some really weird and beautiful lighting underneath it, with the sun trying to get through. I remember one fire in particular, it was so big it had a dozen or so really active heads, each creating huge columns of smoke. The air was pretty still so the columns formed up overhead to make a huge dome over us. Inside the "room" below the air was perfectly still as the sun couldn't heat the ground to make any convective currents and the light was this eerie red colour.

  You had to be careful though as the hot air of a fire can create its own weather and can really rock a small plane if you get into it. Occasionally the rising air is so hot and rising so fasst it punches right up into the stratosphere, making its own thunderstorm overhead the fire. There were a couple of these " Pyronimbus " clouds formed this season that deposited ash from the territories as far away as Portugal!

  After mapping, we'd climb back up to 1500 feet if we were going to transit to the next fire, or higher if we were going to radio everything in.

  Fires were assigned a number, in sequential order of their discovery. at the beginning of the year, up to about fire 40 or so, you knew them all by heart. Chances are, you discovered all of the, anyway. Later in the season, when they got up to 90 or so, there were lots that had been found by helo crews, others that had gone out and you needed coordinates to find them. The Garmin 430 in the plane I flew the last two seasons, it was a piece of cake to enter coordinates. Prior to that we were using a plane with a Areamap something-or-other that had you using a little joystick to physically move the pointer on the map while the coordinates displayed underneath. This was a bit of a pain as to get precise locations and the map turned if you were turning at all, making it hard to keep oriented with the joystick, while flying.

  Smoky's GPS tracker gave real-time location info to the fire dispatch centre, mine only plotted a location when I pressed a button, for my flight follower to know where we were. I'd use the aircraft timer to do 30 minute check-ins, and usually do my fuel calculations or tank switching on the same schedule. I needed to burn an hour of fuel out of my main tanks before I could switch over and use my aux tanks. I had to burn my aux tank fuel as soon as that hour was up, and they burned for 45 minutes. You couldn't burn aux fuel first as the fuel injection system returned half the fuel pumped to the main tanks, if they were full, the returning fuel would go overboard, out the vents. you couldn't burn aux fuel last either as they didn't have a boost pump for the aux tanks, meaning if the engine quit, you couldn't restart it.

  Fire dispatch would give us updates on other aircraft working around us, letting us know if a fire was being actioned, so we could keep our distance. We'd also talk to the bird-dog pilots who would warn us if the bombers were en route. In civilian aviation, airspace around a fire is automatically restricted airspace and you need to be either 3000 feet above it or 5 nautical miles away from it. Since we were involved in the fire action, it didn't apply to us, but if there were bombers on the fire, we'd stay at least that distance away, if not more. They were being coordinated by the bird dog aircraft flying above, and had restricted airspace to work in, so weren't looking out for other traffic most of the time, focusing instead on the ground and their bombing run. Helicopter pilots working a fire were simply crazy and would run into you, just to see what happens.

  I had one instance where we were going to a fire we spotted that was right on the edge of the territorial boundary with a neighboring province. We couldn't tell if it was on the border or outside our jurisdiction, so we flew over to it to check the GPS coordinates. Arriving, we found it just outside our territory, but it looked fresh, so we decided to do an ISM to pass onto the neighboring province, as long as we were there. Problem was, they did know about it and had two helicopters working it when we arrived. We didn't see them until our second orbit or so and they weren't on our radio system so didn't hear them either. I usually monitor the enroute frequency of 126.7 as well, but had turned down the volume earlier as I had three radios squawking at me, and had forgotten to turn the volume back up. They had been making calls, and I thought I was monitoring, but I couldn't hear them. As soon as we saw them we did a 180 and got out of there. I went to make a radio call on 126.7 and that's when I discovered the volume turned down, turning it up, i heard them talking about the " white fixed wing ". Apologized and beat feet for home. oops.

  This past fire season was their worst season in, I think, recorded history. A big fire for us would normally be 30-50,000 Hectares. We'd get two or three of those in a typical season, with the rest being much smaller. This season we had four fires that were each 500,000 plus Hectares in size, along with many more in the 50,000 plus range. It got so bad later in the season that Smoke Patrol pretty much died off to nothing, as they couldn't spare the manpower to go up and look for new fires. Quite frankly, I think they were scared what they would find.

  Crews and tanker aircraft, helicopters and ground crew were brought in from pretty much every other Canadian Province and probably the States as well. 200 Man camps were set up and moved around as they tried to fight these huge fires. Communities were threatened and we were grounded more than once due to extremely poor visibility in the smoke, blanketing thousands of square miles.

  Once community in particular was completely encircled by one fire, 


  With the ground crews fighting the fire from the streets of the village. I had been flying a charter and was listening on the VHF radio as the drama unfolded, with the fire jumping the only road into town, they were trapped in town and the radio calls were getting pretty panicked. Vehicles abandoned, all they could do was put their pumps in the lake and fight the fire. They managed to save the village, but the luck of the winds was on their side or it could have ended quite differently.


  There is an old debate about fighting these fires. One side is to let them burn, its a natural process and keeps the fires small. The other side is to fight everything and hit them when they are small and can actually be put out.

  If you let them burn, the right combination of winds and fuels can let a monster set up and then threaten a town. Why didn't you fight it?

  If you fight everything, the unburnt fuel builds up to unnaturally high levels, setting the stage for monsters to get going, which you can't fight, even if you wanted to. Why did you fight them?

  I felt bad for Smoky, as it was often his call as to whether to fight a fire or not. He had decades of experience in making those calls, which is why he got stuck in the plane so often. But so much is out of his control. He'd fight something small and they'd accuse him of wasting resources. He'd let a fire go and the winds would change around a couple times and suddenly a Value-At-Risk was burned down.

  Value-At-Risk or VAR, was the term for pretty much anything man made that a fire might threaten. A key factor in the decision whether to fight a given fire was whether or not their were any VAR's nearby. a VAR might be a trappers shack made of a few sheets of plywood and tarps, hauled in by snow machine in the winter out to the middle of nowhere. It might only be worth a couple hundred bucks in materials, but they'd send in 10,000 dollar an hour bombers to save it. Then again, next winter when the trapper gets stuck in bad weather and needs his shelter that he put up and finds it gone, when he needs it the most.....well, you get the idea.

  As a pilot up here, you got to know where all these little shacks, lodges and cabins were. Either by flying the owners or materials out in the first place, or just from mentally cataloging them as you drone along over hundreds of miles of wilderness. the ENR guys, even Smoky, would ask you first if you knew of anything nearby, as the location of a lot of this stuff isn't recorded anywhere else.

  Couple random pictures;

  This is a test-block. Used for testing different methods of firefighting, fire control and who knows what else. They'd burn sections of these from time to time, maybe to train firefighters, I'm not really clear on the whole purpose. I'm sure google knows and I'm too lazy and/or uninterested to look.

    Hope you enjoyed your time On Patrol!


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