Fire conditions in the B.C. Interior may be the worst Dennis Graham has ever seen. And Graham – who has been piloting air tankers for more than three decades – has seen a lot of fires.
As the manager for Conair’s large fleet of air tankers and a pilot with some 6,000 hours of aerial firefighting experience, Graham has seen and fought many of B.C.’s most infamous fires, including the 2003 blaze that ravaged the outskirts of Kelowna. But the situation today seems different, Graham said Wednesday, as he waited at Abbotsford International Airport for directions on where he was to fly his L-188 Electra air tanker.
“Right now, I feel the intensity of these fires is higher than it has been in the past,” he said. The combination of large stands of beetle-killed pine in the Cariboo and earlier and hotter summers has turned the forests into kindling, he said. In addition to coming sooner, Graham said the fires also seem to be harder to knock down. Add another month of summer to the equation, and there are worries the situation could grow even worse by August.
Graham, who lives in Langley and is based out of Abbotsford, has spent several days over the last week spreading retardant on fires near Ashcroft, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake and elsewhere. After one of the seven drops he laid on the Ashcroft blaze, he could see the fire suddenly stop, unable to get closer to nearby homes. But that day he also witnessed several other homes burning, as smoke made fighting the blaze difficult. Another day, on assignment in Williams Lake, Graham was standing by his aircraft at the airport when he looked up and saw a pack of firefighters emerge from the surrounding forest. He was confused, until he realized the fire had jumped a fire line and reached the airport.
“It’s pretty difficult, no matter what you do. If you can imagine a line of flame that’s 100, 200 feet high and a kilometre long. There’s not a whole lot you can do to stop that sort of thing.”
All that smoke makes flying difficult. One fire will send smoke in a predictable, and sometimes narrow, direction. But the number of different fires currently burning in the Interior – 183 as of Wednesday afternoon – means that much of the region is filled with smoke. In addition to reducing visibility for pilots, it also makes spotting new fires, or determining where hot spots are, more difficult.
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Graham started flying air tankers 38 years ago, after a couple years behind the stick of a “bird dog,” a smaller prop plane that guides the larger aircraft toward the drop zone.
“It just seemed like such an awesome thing to do.”
Today, he is in charge of Conair’s entire large tanker fleet, and also hires and trains new pilots. “You can actually see the results of what you’re doing … You feel like you’re accomplishing something.”
Conair has 26 aircraft currently battling the blaze and has also helped outfit some planes loaned to British Columbia by Saskatchewan to fight the fires.
After a pilot reaches the fire they are assigned to, they are paired with a smaller, more maneuverable, bird dog. On board that aircraft is a forestry expert who makes the decision of where, exactly, the tanker will drop its load. Once a decision is made, the tanker follows the bird dog over the desired patch of land, dropping its cargo as expected. Then, after what can be just a couple minutes at the fire zone, the plane heads back to pick up more retardant.
Then, the job often falls to men and women on the ground.
“Those are the real heroes, those guys,” Graham said.