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Fort McMurray on Fire

Five pilots share their stories

Introduction

On 1 May 2016, one of the worst urban area wildfires in Canadian history broke out in the Fort McMurray area of northern Alberta, resulting in the destruction of nearly one tenth of the city and forcing the evacuation of approximately 80,000 residents. Many of the first responders on the scene were local Airbus Helicopters operators, who, working alongside nearly 2,200 heroic land firefighters, battled the fire from above and came to the rescue of countless evacuees. Here, five of these helicopter pilots from Fort McMurray describe their harrowing experiences.


August 2016: As of this writing, the extent of the wildfires in the Fort McMurray area in Alberta, Canada remains estimated at 589,552 hectares in size. On 1 July, the state of emergency issued by the Alberta government was lifted, although a local state of emergency remained in effect in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

At the wildfires’ height, some 80 to 90 helicopters were dispatched to fight fire number 9 (there were multiple fires in the region, which were given numbering as the situation evolved); of these, roughly 40 light and intermediate lift aircraft were from the Airbus Helicopters range. These H120, H125, AS355 and H130 helicopters comprised 45% of all rotary wing aircraft fighting the fire. Below, we hear from Paul Spring, president of Phoenix Heli-Flight, Peter Jordan, base manager at Highland Helicopters, Fabien Moreau, pilot with Wood Buffalo Helicopters, Ryan McAssey, president of Vortex Helicopters, and Vortex chief pilot Todd McCormack, about their companies’ efforts fighting the fires from on high.

During your time in the Fort McMurray area, this must be the most personal fire you’ve had to fight.

Paul Spring, Phoenix Heli-Flight: You can’t let it become overwhelming. There were times when you had to sit down and compose yourself, because you saw the effect on the people and on the town. The first two days were probably the worst because of the shock of losing so many houses. But we got into a rhythm, and you started to realise how much of the town was actually left. The core infrastructure of the town didn’t get damaged. But we were all displaced by the mass evacuation.

Peter Jordan, Highland Helicopters: Fort McMurray is my home. I have lived and worked in the area for 15 years. While we have had numerous forest fires in the past, this one was extremely close to the city, making it a very personal issue with regards to both family and professional responsibilities.My role as base manager was to ensure that my aircraft were ready and available, should the call come; my role as husband and father was to ensure the safe evacuation of my family.



What are some of the stresses on machines and people in a wildfire?

Todd McCormack, Vortex Helicopters: The stress was more due to the number of hours we were flying. Physically, it was taxing. The helicopters performed like they were supposed to. We had FDC air filters. Maintenance crews inspected them at night, and there’d be lots of ash and tree particles, twigs, and leaves. The engineers cleaned them once a week or more, and we had brand-new filters, so we weren’t keeping the aircraft on the ground at all.

“You can’t let it become overwhelming. There were times when you had to sit down and compose yourself, because you saw the effect on the people and on the town.”


Paul Spring, President of Phoenix Heli-Flight

P.S.: Our pilots were required to have some time to rest. We’re only allowed to work a 14-hour clock day, of which we’re only allowed to fly for eight hours. For the first three days of a major fire, you can be ten hours in the air. After three days, it reduces to eight hours max flying per pilot until you have a day of rest, and then you go back to three tens. And our maintenance staff shifted over. Besides one person working the day shift, all of our maintenance staff were working the night shift. We’d bring the machines back and they’d work all night.

Could you describe what was going on in the air?

P.S.: We’d never seen a fire in such an urban environment. Our job was to keep the fire from getting into new subdivisions. The H135 was busy with the evacuation of the hospital. The machine moved a couple of times as the medical clinic moved; there was a second evacuation because the fire turned and started going towards the camp everybody had evacuated to. The H120s were probably the busiest helicopter out there, flying eight hours every day, because they do a command and control service with a pilot and a forest officer. There may be up to eight heavy and intermediate helicopters three hundred feet below you. You pick out their targets for them, stagger their fuel rotations. You make sure they don’t go over their flight time requirements. The H120 would fly about three hours per sortie, and then we’d go back and get fuel. Then you’d go back up and do another two or three hours. We’d have a rest while another HelCo (helicopter coordinator) would take over our group of heavies.

Fabien Moreau, Wood Buffalo Helicopters: I remember having to use roads, power lines and buildings to figure out where I was, the visibility was so bad due to the smoke. There were helicopters everywhere, with the non-local pilots struggling to find their way, and you could hear on the radio some instructions from pilots guiding other pilots: "follow that road and turn right at the second set of lights".

“We were three helicopters, waterbucketing an area the size of 10 football fields. I remember I was so glad to be familiar with the area and able to recognize schools, soccer fields, antennas…”


Fabien Moreau, pilot with Wood Buffalo Helicopters

T.M.: The communication with Forestry was very good. At the beginning, [the pilots] just got a verbal briefing and off you went. But as the fire matured, with at its peak 140 aircraft here, briefings became very important and intense, because of the sheer number of planes and helicopters in the air. The local helicopter operators know the local area well, but add aircraft operators who don’t know the area, and throw in the smoke and the fire, keeping your head up and eyes out became very important. If we could pass on knowledge to the other pilots, we’d do that. A pleasant surprise is there were no helicopter accidents. In two months of fire fighting, with that much confusion in the beginning, everyone did very well.

Did any particularly vivid moment stand out for you?

Ryan McAssey, Vortex Helicopters: People water-bucketing the Ft. McMurray city hall, trying to save the communications centre. And the evacuation. All directions of the highway evacuating to the south. Seeing the people who were unprepared, with no fuel and no food, and vehicles abandoned on the highway. People on their motorcycles on the highway who had run out of gas. It stretched out more than 100 kilometers. That was probably something I won’t see again.

P.S.: I remember flying up the highway, towards the smoke, and there were all these vehicles, four lanes of highway. The flow on the highway was reversed on the two north-bound lanes—people were in them heading south. Rescues: one of our first calls was a gentlemen whose road was cut off. “I’ve got four adults and eight children, could you come and get us?’ He knew our company number so he phoned us. We sent two of our B2s, got him and his family, and then started picking up all of his neighbours. We moved about 40 people out of that area over the next two hours.

F.M.: A scary evening was when we were dispatched to the Thickwood area to try to prevent more homes and buildings from burning. We were three helicopters, waterbucketing an area the size of 10 football fields. I remember I was so glad to be familiar with the area and able to recognize schools, soccer fields, antennas…when we finished for the night I thought to myself that Thickwood would be gone by the morning... but in fact the next day it was still standing with not much more damage than when we had left the night before. The ground firefighter crew must had done an amazing job that night.

P.J.: The view from the air of the initial column of smoke was unbelievable…the speed and ferocity of the fire almost left one speechless. Today, all these months later, it is still devastating to fly over the city and see the scope of the destruction.

Highland Helicopters
Founded 1959
Airbus Helicopters fleet: H125 (AS350 BA, B2 versions)
Operations: oil & gas, forestry, mining and exploration, aerial media, wildlife and resource management, aerial work, medi-vac flights

Phoenix Heli-Flight
Founded 1992
Airbus Helicopters fleet: H120, H125, H130, H135, AS350 and AS355
Operations: aerial construction, cargo transportation, forest management, photography, environmental surveys, wildfire suppression, HEMS

Vortex Helicopters
Founded 2006
Airbus Helicopters fleet: H125 (AS350 BA, B2, and B3e versions)
Operations: Charter flights, forestry, aerial photography, utility, oil & gas, fire suppression

Wood Buffalo Helicopters
Airbus Helicopters fleet: : H120, H125 (AS350 B2, B3, B3e versions)
Operations: Oil & gas field support, oil sand support, environmental monitoring, firefighting, wildlife survey and management, photograph and videography, tourism, remote sensing and airborne imaging