june 2013
The Alberta aviation program at work. Photo Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

Through a dedicated service-contract relationship between the aircraft industry and government, the province of Alberta has created one of the more progressive airtanker programs in the world. A unique combination of factors contributed to the program’s development and evolution, beginning with a need for a set of clear initial attack objectives designed to best protect Alberta’s large expanse of values at risk in a complex fire regime. Alberta structured its initial attack strategy around meeting and measuring these objectives in a performance management approach to doing business.

Building a Program around Specific Objectives

Between 2007 and 2011 the Alberta fire season averaged 1,552 fires consuming an average of 533,000 acres (216,000 hectares) through a combination of 64% human- and 36% lightning-caused wildfires.

The province is 255,000 square miles (roughly 35% larger than California) and borders Montana and Idaho to the south and the 60th parallel to the north. Flying top to bottom in Alberta is about the same distance as a flight from Phoenix to Yellowstone National Park. The Forest Protection Area managed by government of Alberta is approximately 96.4 million acres — roughly the land managed by the US Forest Service in the eight-state “Mountain West” area from the Mexican to Canadian borders.

Alberta’s base budget for 2011-2012 wildfire management preparedness was approximately $107 million. The total expenditures for wildfire management including the cost of preparedness and fighting the fires in 2011/12 totaled about $340 million.

Alberta’s current fleet consists of 22 airtankers distributed across nine groups including five heavy tankers (three Electra L-188’s and two Convair CV 580s), four CL-215 Ts, 10 AT-802F Amphibious Firebosses, and 3 AT-802F Airtractors.

All aircraft, with the exception of the CL-215s are privately owned. Three of the Alberta CL-215Ts are operational in 2013. The fourth CL-215 will be retrofit into a CL-215T and will be on line in 2014.In 2012, airtanker groups worked on 255 fires, flying 186 hours (long-term retardant tanker groups) and 220 hours (skimmer groups).

From communities to oil fields, timber to caribou, the values at risk from wildfire in Alberta are numerous and extend well into the Forest Protection Area. Alberta allocates firefighting resources based on the risk of wildfire to human life, communities, watersheds and sensitive soils, natural resources, and infrastructure (listed in order of descending priority). Emerging factors such as escalating wildfire conditions and costs; expanding residential and industrial development into the wildland urban interface; increasing public and stakeholder expectations; increasing need to protect critical wildlife habitat also contribute to the need for aggressive initial attack. Alberta’s wildfire management framework has been designed to include rapid detection, containment and suppression with the objectives:

  1. To contain fire spread by 10:00 a.m. the following day
  2. To initiate suppression before the fire exceeds two hectares (4.9 acres) in size

Alberta is not a homogenous jurisdiction, by a long shot. Diverse terrain, fire behavior potential and fuel types combine with populated and non-populated forest areas, as well extensive and sometimes competing land use types which in combination require the toolbox approach. According to Wally Born, a former Aviation and Geomatics Manager for Alberta, the province built an airtanker program around the objectives, but with the other initial attack resource capabilities in mind. The province considers heavy equipment, firefighting crews (including a rappel program, a helitack program and firetac crews), helicopters, and wildfire assessors as a part of the full initial attack toolbox.

Airtanker design criteria required the deployment of airtanker resources to a fire within 30 minutes of detection. Internal geographies (a combination of mountainous terrain, low-lying prairie areas, and an expanse of boreal forest backing onto Canadian Shield to the north); the fire regime (anything from prairie grass fires to 700,000 hectare boreal conflagrations); and the optimal placement of resources compared to values at risk complicated the task at hand. A fundamental ‘win’ in the design of the program was having a diverse fleet of aircraft from which to draw.

Part of the Aviation Tool Box. Four FireBoss air tankers skim water out of Half Moon Lake as they work the Opal Fire in 2010 near Edmonton, Alberta.

The other part of the equation goes beyond speed or type of aircraft, emphasizes Born. It is a matter of where bases are located, what kind of planes can they support, and how you build and maintain program preparedness through structuring alerts appropriately.

The range of fire regimes and geographies shape the best set of aviation tools.

  • Southern locations of the province have the most challenging flying environments of the Rocky Mountains. The nimble AT802’s have demonstrated time and again their value in smaller valleys and drainages.
  • Skimmers are located in areas most populated by lakes. Forty years ago, Alberta created a survey of lakes intended for pilots to use en route to fires- where waters sources would be a known entity (i.e. minimum scooping depth and length). Identifying scoopable lakes back in the 1970’s laid the foundation for acceptance of the need for skimmer aircraft in this province.
  • Long-range heavy airtankers are located in northern areas of the province where ground access becomes a problem and the protection area itself becomes much more expansive (both contribute to increase in response times for ground or rotary-wing resources).
  • The northwestern section of the province has fewer lakes and is populated largely by the province’s most volatile fuel type- black spruce. High-speed, heavy tanker support becomes vital to achieving quick containment objectives.

Other factors include seasonal variation in both fire hazard and values at risk. In the spring, the hazard is up north so the fleet is more likely to be doubled up in the northern portion of the province. Bases are built to accommodate multiple planes and multiple groups, if need be.

Performance Management

With containment objectives clearly defined and a program designed strategically to meet these objectives, Alberta also took on a performance management approach that includes collecting and analyzing program data. “We position our aircraft and build our response and alerts in order to get retardant on the fire within 30 minutes- and this is our optimum measuring tool for program effectiveness,” according to Born. “We look for 5-minute getaway times,” says Born, “and we send our airtankers to 17% of our fires, the most challenging fires we have.” In the 2012 fire season, 464 requests to action fires were filled by the program, of which 75% (348) were initial attack and 116 were support.

Current performance indicators include:

  1. Size on Arrival: A BH (Being Held) fire size objective of 2.0 hectares means airtankers need to be arriving on scene to fires that are much smaller in size. If tankers are continually arriving at 7-20 hectares, some component of the metric for dispatch needs re-working. “If you are arriving on a ‘failure,’ you are not dispatching fast enough,” explains Born. The average fire size at the time firefighting started for all fires in the province between 2006 and 2010 was 1.3 hectares (3.3 acres). Approximately 986 of these fires were responded to by airtankers in the role of initial attack. Fire size upon arrival for air attack resources was 2 hectares or less 72-percent of the time. The average travel distance was 52 nautical miles (approximately 20 minutes for the slowest plane in the fleet) — putting the 30 minute criteria well within reach.
  2. The 10:00 am containment objective: In 2011 the province reported 96.1 % of fires were contained by 10:00am the next day. Of the fires responded to by airtankers between 2006 and 2010, 72% exhibited low to moderate fire behavior-increasing the odds of tanker drops making a difference on outcomes. For high fire danger days, the province sends 2 tanker groups, multiple initial attack resources with rotor wing, and multiple support resources (wildfire crews, support rotor wing, heavy equipment) to a new start. An AAO can expect to manage an average of 6.7 simultaneous aircraft. By arriving on scene early the risk to ground crews is reduced (in about 55% of cases airtankers dropped before ground crews arrived). On average, the birddog team (AAO plus birddog pilot) coordinate with the first arriving airtanker to deliver retardant within just 3.9 minutes of a tanker’s arrival over the fire. From a fleet diversity perspective, working different tankers together is a key strategy. Skimmers are used in direct attack to reduce fire behavior and support line-building operations by the long-term retardant aircraft on scene. When land-based retardant airtankers are working with skimmers, the highest priority is placed on facilitating the delivery of water to the fire in what Alberta calls the “liters per hour concept.” Based on cost effectiveness, skimmers are priority processed over long-term retardant tankers. Between 2006 and 2010, about 24% of fires that were actioned by airtankers had both skimmers and long-term retardant aircraft on scene. The ratio of water to retardant dropped on fires was about 2.5 to 1 between 2006 and 2010, despite the fleet being relatively balanced. Alberta uses data on travel distances between source lakes and fires to identify the upper bound of travel distance effectiveness given fire behavior for its two tanker types.
  3. Alert Level Appropriateness: Alberta tracks the relationship between dispatches and alert status to monitor the appropriateness of aircrew resource readiness levels. If 90% of airtanker dispatches are occurring on its highest alert level- Red (rolling in 5 minutes) and the rest occur either on Yellow (30 minutes) or Blue (1.1 hour roll time), then alerts are appropriate. Upgrading alerts as necessary is only half the strategy for overall program readiness in Alberta. The other half involves being able to downgrade alerts as a means to provide adequate opportunities to rest aircrews whenever possible. Primary tanker bases are fully equipped with the firehouse mentality in mind and several initiatives are undertaken to support crew morale. Pilots can rest, cook meals and have ready rooms as well as ample space to conduct after action reviews. When flying fires, meals are ordered automatically for flight crews.
  4. Supplementing Resources: Alberta’s mentality with regards to anticipating need includes anticipating new starts and ordering mutual aid or additional resources well in advance of a high hazard. The province has been working closely with British Columbia and the Yukon Territory to finesse its “quick-strike” program as one example. It is now possible for an Alberta airtanker group to be launched into BC up to 200 nautical miles on a quick-strike. The program required a commitment from neighboring airtanker program managers that dissolved borders in the name of containment objectives.
  5. Drop Accuracy: On scene, airtanker drops are evaluated by the birddog team and communicated back to the tanker for every single drop. AAO’s record fire characteristics data on arrival and departure, and the date-time of every single drop associated with a mission are collected and entered into a database after each flight. All birddog aircraft contracts require Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras which were brought on over 20 years ago to improve drop placement and training. Born believes on-scene pilot evaluation coupled with operational database information completes a feedback loop that keeps pilots “shooting for bulls-eyes” while providing management with a means to track performance.
  6. Air Attack Officer (AAO) Management:Alberta’s competitive marketplace has required some use of contractors in order to maintain the cadre of highly skilled and experienced assets returning to operations.. The province has 24 AAO positions and fills a portion of these with contracts, based upon need. Turnover is minimal and Alberta  has no training or staffing deficit. Contractors set their availabilities and work an average of 70-80 days per year.

Program Evolution and Maintenance

Alberta’s airtanker program showcase reputation and presence has helped educate several other jurisdictions on the benefits of fleet diversity. In 2011, Quebec came to Alberta to observe the Fireboss as that province considers diversifying its homogenous fleet of CL-415s. British Columbia is considering bringing on its first group of skimmers in 2014- based on the success of mutual aid missions flown by Alberta AT-802Fs in that province. Alberta has also sent Electra and Fireboss groups to the Northwest Territories to assist as that government upgrades; and in 2011 and 2012 Alberta’s Convair groups were deployed across the United States. None of this would have been possible without Alberta’s partnership with providers as valuable partners in program evolution. Born insists, “It’s a collaborative approach.”

The biggest challenge facing the province is similar to that facing the United States airtanker fleet: How to identify and plan for the next generation of airtankers that will replace the five aging Convair and Electra LI-188 large airtankers.

In 2000, when the Convair was first brought into Alberta, the aircraft was already 40 years old, explains Born, “we are now 13 years down the road, and there is probably another 7 years left.” Changes in industry regulations and certification processes will mean higher capital expenditures are required. “So it will not be a $100,000, 40-year old airframe the aircraft industry is looking at fitting with a tank. It may be a $14-million capital investment to an airframe that needs to be tanked.”

Alberta has historically planned its airtanker program at least 10-years in advance, but Born now says 15-20 years may be more realistic. The province is already working with its existing suppliers to test and plan for the next generation, but acknowledges that the capacity of today’s fleet may not be achievable with the next generation’s estimated cost.

“It may be cost-prohibitive for the private sector to go out and buy 20 planes,” which means a new funding model may also be required. This means that Alberta will have to look even further outside of the box. In 2011, the province hired on the DC 10 from the US to work on an escaped fire, which also offered an opportunity to get a head start on assessing cost-benefits.

Besides replacing airtankers is the other critical question of adequately matching birddogs by performance to the new fleet. And ‘faster’ has never been the metric by which choices are made. For example, the program brought on the AC 690 Turbo Commander and the Cessna Caravan about 12 years ago for different reasons. The slower, easily maneuverable Caravans are paired with the AT802s and extended fuel duration is considered a plus for providing ATGS platforms on escaped fires. The AC690 could keep up with heavy tankers and provided a twin-turbine upgrade to the Aerostar while retaining excellent tactical performance. In 2012, the citation jet made an appearance in the province through one of the regular providers as a ‘first look’ at what birddogging in 2020 might look like.

Planning an Aviation Program

Alberta’s Initial Attack Program was conceived around a set of simple provincial containment objectives that necessitates the use of airtankers. Given the size, scope, and complexity of the Forest Protection Area, fleet diversity is the province’s main asset. A chain of strategic management decisions, operations staff feedback and company support have enabled the program to succeed. Thanks to data collection, performance is a known quantity that supports review and reassessment, thus ensuring continued evolution of the airtanker program and offering one model for planning wildfire aviation programs.

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Writer Kat Thomson next to her “Birddog,” the AC 690 Turbo Commander.