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Flying Through Hell … Again and Again Fort McMurray Helicopters Fight ‘The Beast’

Posted 5 years 351 days ago ago by Admin



Editor’s Introduction:  Think back to this past May. You flipped on your TV or booted up your computer, and there on the screen were tens of thousands of Canadians in Alberta fleeing a hellish wildfire unleashed on them. High winds, hot temperatures, and bone-dry evergreen forests fed the flames’ fury as they exploded into an uncontrollable firestorm that devoured over 2,400 homes and buildings. This attacking force of nature became known as the Fort McMurray wildfire, named after the town in its vicinity. It raged for weeks, traveling through the forests of northern Alberta and eastwards into the province of Saskatchewan.

While the fire was far beyond the ability of mortal man to extinguish, thanks to the heroic efforts of those piloting and servicing firefighting helicopters and water bombers that attacked the inferno from the air, and thanks to further brave boots on the ground who battled the hundred-foot flames towering over them, Fort McMurray’s hospital, downtown area, utilities, and many residential areas were saved. More miraculously, only two lives were lost, and these unfortunate deaths occurred in a highway accident during evacuation.

At the time of the battle to save Fort McMurray, Rotorcraft Pro asked our staff writer, James Careless, to cover this important story by focusing on the services helicopter operators provided in most challenging circumstances. This is his report.

The fire started small on May Day 2016. However, the traditional May 1 holiday soon turned—and burned—into a distress call. Unfortunately, the winds were too high and the ground too dry. Within hours, more and more acres were devoured by flames with red-hot embers blowing ahead of the leading edge. In time, the fast moving fire grew too hot for firefighters to approach. So intense was its temperature that it even began creating its own heat lightning. Eventually, emergency personnel had another name for the Fort McMurray wildfire: The Beast.

Air Battle Begins

The town of Fort McMurray is home to a number of helicopter companies that grew with the emergence of the area’s oil sands industry. Phoenix Heli-Flight, Summit Helicopters, Vortex Helicopters, and Wood Buffalo Helicopters are among the ranks of operators. Collectively, these companies have over 40 helicopters based in local hangars at Fort McMurray International Airport. The mix of aircraft include everything from Bell 206s, 407s, and 412s to Airbus EC120s, EC130s, and AS350B2/B3s, to Sikorsky S76As and S61s. They provide such services as aerial surveys, medevac, mining site supply, search and rescue—and firefighting.

“Aerial firefighting–hauling water buckets and ‘bird-dogging’ hotspots for fixed-wing water bombers–is a regular part of what we do,” says Michael Morin, president and CEO of Aurora Helicopters, which owns and operates Wood Buffalo Helicopters. “Forest fires happen here every year, only usually without posing a significant risk to our city and communities.” To underscore how the fire has now changed things, Morin is in a temporary office—his brother-in-law’s garage out of town.

Another operator, Summit Helicopters, was the first company called out to fight the fire. “As soon as it was spotted and called in, our pilot began long-lining a 180-gallon water bucket to knock down the flames,” recalls Peter Rice, Summit’s operations manager. It didn’t take long for other helicopter companies to join in. Under contracts to firefighting agencies, the various aircraft took off from the airport to haul water buckets, locate hot spots for larger fixed-wing water bombers, and evacuate people trapped by The Beast’s towering flames that seemed to change heading and speed at whim.

Hellish Conditions

The flying conditions were the stuff of nightmares. The combination of hot, swirling winds combined with heavy smoke compromised the rotorcrafts’ lifting capacity and their pilots’ vision. “In many cases, the smoke hid the hotspots from the air,” said Paul Spring, president and operations manager at Phoenix Heli-Flight. “This made it extremely difficult to find the best targets for dropping water, especially given that the affected area was huge and water was so precious.”

With all the toxic chemicals released by so many houses and vehicles burning, the air became dangerous to breathe. “This is the only time I ever had to issue respirator masks to pilots, mechanics, and office staff,” said Wood Buffalo’s Morin. “The air was just that toxic.”

Furthermore, the sheer volume of aircraft involved created complications. While fixed-wings flew overhead on water-bombing runs, dozens of helicopters scurried below on various missions, and in all directions. Given the extremely poor visibility and limited air traffic control, it is a tribute to the pilots and controllers that no in-air collisions occurred, especially since many pilots coordinated their positions visually with other aircraft via radio.


The hours weren’t easy either, with 12-hour days being the norm. “We would stand-to at 9 a.m., be on base at 10 a.m., and start flying through to 9 p.m. … with no days off. Once the helicopters were on the ground, our maintenance people worked on them overnight, so that they would be ready to begin flying the next morning,” says Corie-Ann McAssey, co-owner of Vortex Helicopters. She, her co-owner husband/pilot, Ryan, and their three children also weren’t immune from the fire’s consequences away from work. The mother and children endured a harrowing evacuation from Fort McMurray on the fire-ravaged highway, while Ryan flew missions.

No Safe Place

Driven by ever-shifting winds, the wildfire constantly changed direction and speed. A location that was safe from flames in the distance at 2 p.m., might be overrun by 4 p.m. This is precisely what happened to some of the oil sands work camps, where refugees from blazes had to flee again as the fire suddenly devoured the camps’ housing units and buildings.

Fort McMurray’s helicopter companies also were not free from this peril. Having been forced from their hangars when The Beast suddenly attacked the airport’s perimeter and torched outlying buildings, they flew their aircraft and trucked parts and tools to safer locations—locations that in time proved not to be safe after all.

A case in point: Phoenix Heli-Flight packed as much equipment as they could and evacuated out of town. Sprinklers were left running at their hangar in a bid to forestall ignition, and local firefighters remained at the airport to keep the fire at bay, which they generally did. Yet, Phoenix Heli-Flight was forced to move yet again when the fire caught up to their new evacuation location. Eventually, the company’s seven Airbus helicopters hunkered in an oil sands camp when they weren’t aloft fighting the fire. Spring recalls, “On our way to the camp, we had to stop to find diesel fuel for our trucks. At one place a guy was happy to give us fuel for free; we had rescued him from the fire by helicopter the day before.”

In fact, many Albertans spontaneously donated free food, lodging, and fuel to Fort McMurray evacuees and firefighters, even parking along the evacuation route to make their donations in person. Wherever they were, many Fort McMurray helicopter pilots and mechanics slept with their machines, using multi-bedroom trailers that were trucked in. It not only allowed them to conduct missions in a timely manner, but also gave them much needed shelter, for many of their homes had been destroyed or were in evacuation zones.

Wood Buffalo Helicopters followed the same strategy as Phoenix Heli-Flight, moving from location to location while staff lived out of temporary accommodations. “There was no power, no water, no gas, no phone service, no internet, and very poor cellular coverage,” said Morin. “Fortunately, we did receive outside support when it came to food, water, and fuel being trucked in. But it was extremely difficult working conditions.”


Our Turn

By early June, people started returning to Fort McMurray. While The Beast still burns elsewhere, it should not return to haunt them: Anything surrounding the town that might fuel the fire has already been exhausted. That the town’s infrastructure and core survived—and that no lives were directly lost to fire despite the destruction of thousands of buildings—is a tribute to the first responders.

Phoenix Heli-Flight’s Spring had his home destroyed in the fire, yet he never stopped doing his part to protect others. He seems to have kept an almost philosophical perspective: “Forest fires happen here in the boreal forest. Slave Lake, Alberta, was hit hard a few years ago and suffered massive damage. This year turned out to be our turn.”

Where the next forest fire might strike nobody knows. What is certain is that first responders, and their essential aircraft fought The Beast valiantly.
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