Ahead of what could be a ‘very difficult’ forest fire season, the territorial government has some new fire-fighting equipment.
Eight new Air Tractor 802A FireBoss amphibious water bomber aircraft have arrived in the territory over the past several weeks.
The aircraft, at about $3.5 million each, replace four GNWT-owned CL-215 planes that will be sold off.
The new, single-pilot planes are smaller than the CL-215 and can pick up water from smaller lakes.
“If we have a fire you should be able to scoop fairly close,” said Frank Lepine, director of forest management with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “This should change our whole ability to scoop (water) in tighter locations.”
The new planes require about half of the two-kilometre stretch the older planes required, he said.
Four of the planes will be based in Yellowknife while the other four will be in Fort Smith.
Buffalo Airways was awarded the contract in December to operate and maintain the planes for five years. Pilots were trained in Florida and the planes are expected to be in use around May 25, he said.
The water bombers arrived as a long-term forecast developed with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Canadian Forest Service predicts a warm and dry summer in the southern part of the territory, Lepine said.
Areas that “look like they may be trouble” are the Deh Cho and parts of the South and North Slave regions, he said.
“We might have a very difficult fire season coming up here based on the predictions but we’ll see how that goes because some timely rain can change everything,” Lepine said last week.
While the new planes, manufactured in Texas, have advantages, there are also disadvantages.
The old plane could drop 1,200 gallons of water and foam at a time, while the new plane can drop 600 gallons, he said.
“Our studies show there’s really no difference in the ground impact – how much water hits the ground – but it’s a different pattern,” he said.
Having a single pilot could present challenges as well. One example Lepine gave was that going from two-pilot planes to a single pilot means there’s one less person to make corrections if errors are made during the flight.
“They’re slightly more challenging in that respect but otherwise from all the pilots we talked to during initial consultation is that they’re a dream to fly when it comes to water bombing,” Lepine said.
He said the GNWT considered retrofitting its current planes but the average cost was $28 million per plane. Buying another type of plane was estimated to cost upwards of $35 million, he said.
“It was quite a savings for us to go to this level of aircraft,” Lepine said of the Air Tractor 802A FireBoss planes, which have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years.
The department is planning open house events for the public to get a close-up look at the new planes, he said.