'Brothers' in the air fly from Kamloops to douse wildfires from the sky | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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'Brothers' in the air fly from Kamloops to douse wildfires from the sky

Conair firefighting pilot Rod Turnbull in the cockpit of an AT802 Fire Boss, commonly called a "skimmer".

The pilots who water bomb wildfires in the Kamloops region have formed a tight bond over the years.

Six skimmer pilots are ready, waiting for the urgent call when firefighters need their help in BC forests.

Typically flying a 737 passenger plane the rest of the year, Vernon-based pilot Rod Turnbull is often looking forward to warmer weather because he gets to return to the cockpit in the skimmer planes at the Kamloops Fire Centre.

Turnbull said it's an honour to work with his fellow pilots and BC Wildfire Service to keep fires at bay. As he gave reporters a tour of his plane, he said the pilots he flies with are some of the best in the world.

"It's like a brotherhood. The best of friends coming back every year... it's definitely our second family," he said.

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He's in his sixth year as part of a seven-man skimmer crew. Six small, single-engine planes are led by another pilot who guides them over the fire zone to map where they'll drop their payloads.

As they approach the fire, he said there isn't just smoke, but also debris like burning pine cones hitting the windscreen as the approach the blaze.

Water bombers are on standby at Fulton Field as they await the 2024 wildfire season.
Water bombers are on standby at Fulton Field as they await the 2024 wildfire season.

"When we go in for the run, you can feel the heat coming through your airplane. We get back and we smell like smoke — it's quite an experience," he said as he described a particularly memorable day fighting a wildfire on the banks of Adams Lake last year.

That was at the height of last year's wildfire season when the pilots and BC Wildfire Service at large were working to prioritize resources to some of the largest fires in the Shuswap area, Kelowna and the north. Turnbull said while the pilots are a close group who work well together, those times are more stressful.

"Usually we're having a good time up there, but sometimes you get the odd fire where it's quiet up there and everyone is really focused on the task at hand. Sometimes it is quite serious up there," he said.

It's the water bombers that get the glory, but the all important pilot guiding them through is the key to their success. That plane will scope out the best approach, then test it before leading the skimmers in a line over the blaze.

The nimble planes, controlled by skilled pilots, have no issue with the tight valleys found across the province. Turnbull said they can be a rough ride, however.

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Unlike the larger water bombers, skimmer pilots where helmets inside the cockpit. Their bodies can be jostled around, so it's important to protect the head, especially when dropping onto a lake to scoop water for the next drop. Even on a smooth surface, skimming over the water for just 15 seconds is like a bucking bronco, Turnbull said.

Once at the wildfire, the lead pilot will search for the best approach to aid the ground crews, while also accounting for the safety of the pilots. Once determined and ground crews are prepared, then each pilot will drop in and douse the fire in water or, sometimes, fire retardant. The hope is to cool and slow the fire to help crews on the ground.

The skimmers aren't the only planes on standby at the Kamloops Fire Centre.

At Fulton Field in Kamloops, aerial contractor Conair also has pilots for its RJ85 planes, a repurposed passenger plane. The windows lining the fuselage are partially covered by the massive tank attached to the bottom. Its interior is stripped of all remnants of its former life as a passenger plane to save weight, while the tank can carry more than 11,000 litres of fire retardant.

The RJ85 tanker can carry more than 11,000 litres in fire retardant.
The RJ85 tanker can carry more than 11,000 litres in fire retardant.

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The tankers, while slower to get to the scene on urgent fire calls, are still maneuverable in some of the province's tightest valleys, pilots said.

The RJ85 is also led first by another pilot in a smaller plane to first scope the line. Once a safe and effective route is decided, the tanker will drop in and lay down some or all of its payload, which can not only help douse the fire but the force can take down trees in the fire retardant's path.

The tankers and the skimmers in Kamloops, along with the helicopters and planes across the province, are dispatched from the BC Wildfire headquarters at Fulton Field.

While helicopters were dispatched to Northern BC wildfires, the planes have been on standby as they wait for some to spark in the Southern Interior.

The BC Wildfire fleet consists of 40 aircraft, with more available when called on. They can be used to not only drop fire retardant or water, but they can help map out a wildfire and drop ground crews by parachute in remote areas.

Once the season is underway, the water bombers can be out for hours on end as they triage priority fires, only taking breaks to refuel before they take off again.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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