Alberta Wildfire is using a new tool that it hopes will give it an upper hand when fighting wildfires: a nighttime wildfire fighting helicopter.
The helicopter was used on several fires during the 2023 wildfire season, including ones burning near Little Red River Cree Nation, Edson and East Prairie Metis Settlement, to assist with dropping water on fires, reconnaissance and moving personnel.
This past wildfire season was the worst in Alberta’s history. A total of 1,094 wildfires burned more than 2.2 million hectares; the previous record was 1.35 million hectares burned in 1981.
Alberta is at the start of a five-year contract to trial the helicopter, and it is believed to be the only province in the country currently with one. It also trialled the helicopter in 2022.
Talon, the Richmond, B.C., company that Alberta Wildfire is contracting with, said it previously did a night firefighting trial with B.C. Wildfire in 2020 for two nights but it has not done any further operations with the province of B.C.
“It is fast. It’s very capable,” said Aaron Barnhardt, a provincial helicopter specialist with Alberta Wildfire.
“But the big thing is the night vision technology… People in the helicopter have night vision goggles on. They amplify light up to 60,000 times … so that allows us to navigate, see hazards, identify active parts of a wildfire.”
According to Talon, the helicopter has a 900 litre water tank, which can be filled in as little as 20 seconds, and its internal and external lighting has been modified to allow pilots to wear night vision goggles.
“It gives us another tool to work with,” Barnhardt said, adding crew members will require specialized training to use the night vision goggles.
“Firefighting at night can be more effective due to lower temperatures, higher humidities and it’s something that I think our organization could do better at. We identified it as kind of something we could work on and this aircraft is a tool to support not just aerial firefighting at night, but it can help to support ground firefighting, like heavy equipment and crews.”
Better for smaller wildfires
Mike Flannigan, a B.C. Innovation Research Chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., said there are advantages to fighting a fire at night but he said there are challenges.
“You need to be very careful because your visibility, even with the technology, is still reduced from daytime,” he said.
“Fires are usually quiet at night, but situations like we’re seeing in California right now and what we saw in Maui earlier — fires can rage at night…. The helicopter won’t be very efficient unless it’s a small fire.”
Despite that, Flannigan said the helicopter could be a game-changer.
“If the rollout is successful in Alberta, other fire management agencies across Canada will be looking at it and seeing the lessons learned in Alberta,” he said.