By Jordan Omstead
They’re an easily recognizable part of Canada’s fight against wildfires, playing a key supporting role in the annual battle against the flames.
Water bombers can look as though they might land in a burning forest, their wings almost skimming the smoky canopy before dumping down thousands of litres of water and pulling back into the sky.
The firefighting aircraft are important in a country where wildfires can often be spread out over massive, remote stretches of land, offering a way to hold off fires until ground crews arrive.
But as Canada’s water bombers age – and wildfire seasons are expected to intensify – some wildland firefighters and emergency preparedness experts say the country needs to prop up its fleet of firefighting aircraft, even though several provinces are playing down concerns about capacity.
“We’re really starting to see the effects of the aging fleet,” said Eric Davidson, president of the Ontario Professional Association of Wildland Firefighters.
This year saw the worst wildfire season ever recorded in Canada, which exposed cracks in the country’s firefighting capacity, from firefighter retention to recruitment. Thousands of wildfires tore across enough land to cover Nova Scotia three times, or the city of Toronto 280 times, choking skies with smoke and prompting evacuations of communities.
Now, as focus shifts to next season, some have questioned whether Canada has the fleet of aerial water bombers it needs to keep up with longer, more intense wildfire seasons fuelled by climate change.
“If we’re not going to have supports for our crews for retention and recruitment issues, and we’re not going to have the aircraft and equipment … then I think we’re in a lot of trouble,” said Davidson, a Red Lake, Ont.-based fire management technician who has been fighting wildfires out of Ontario for 10 years.
John Gradek, a lecturer in aviation management at McGill University, estimates almost half of the larger water bombers used to fight Canadian forest fires are nearing the end of their service life.
“The time has come for us to look at how we fleeted our firefighting equipment for forest fires and rebuild a robust fleet,” he said.
While certain provinces have expressed interest in replacing some of their more than 50-year-old models, one Canadian company making a large skimmer-style water bomber is reported to be backed up with orders from European countries until at least the end of the decade.
Fixed-wing water bombers – also known as air tankers – are often divided into two types: land-based tankers loaded up with water or fire retardant before takeoff or skimmer-style planes capable of scooping up thousands of litres from a body of water mid-flight.
Each province is responsible for its own wildland firefighting, creating a patchwork of approaches.
Ontario and Quebec have their own fleets, for example, while British Columbia contracts out aircraft. The Northwest Territories, which had to evacuate the capital city of Yellowknife and several other communities due to wildfires this year, have a mix of government-owned and long-term contracted aircraft.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Forest said it’s been renewing its fleet of 19 long-term contracted air tankers since 2020.
Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests said the province has 20 fixed-wing aircraft to help fight wildfires, including nine large water bombers that are 24 years old on average. The other 11 smaller aircraft are an average of 53 and 55 years old.
“The fleet is well-equipped for combating wildfires and supporting transportation in Ontario,” said Melissa Candelaria, a spokesperson for Minister Graydon Smith.
A spokesperson for the Northwest Territories’ department of Environment and Climate Change, meanwhile, said it would be assessing the need for additional local firefighting capacity given climate-driven changes to wildfire seasons.
The territory’s typical fleet of 12 air tankers includes two large air tankers made in 1959, and two large skimmer-style aircraft in 1968 and 1970.
“While it’s tempting to focus on aircraft as it is the most visual and dramatic aspect of wildfire suppression, it is important to note this is only one part of a comprehensive suite of tools we use to manage wildfires,” said Mike Westwick.
“It’s boots on the ground, assisted by heavy equipment, that play a key role in bringing wildfires under control or putting them out.”
While Canada has a system in place to get aircraft and other firefighting resources to areas in need, the centre tasked with co-ordinating those requests said it faced pressures this year.
Too many provinces and territories were seeing heightened fire activity at the same time and there were “very few aircraft” available to lend to other agencies, said Jennifer Kamau, communications manager for the Canada Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University, said the unprecedented wildfire season highlighted the challenges that lie ahead.
“It’s only going to get more challenging with time as fires get more and more intense as our climate warms and more fuel vegetation is available to burn and it burns more intensely,” said Flannigan.
“Demand is only going to increase for firefighters, helicopters and water bomber skimmers … we will need to increase our resources strategically.”
Quebec’s forest fire protection agency said its fleet of 14 water bombers is enough to protect the southern parts of the province in most fire seasons. But agency director general Eric Rousseau said last month the fleet can get spread too thin when fires simultaneously threaten communities and hydroelectric infrastructure in more remote northern regions.
A breakdown of Quebec’s fleet indicated four of those planes were more than 50 years old, while the others had been flying for between 25 and 30 years. Eight of the newer models were having their electronics upgraded at a cost of $50 million and Rousseau said he was in discussions with the province about eventually replacing the older planes.
That could pose an issue, however, with some new water bomber production reportedly spoken for by European countries through the end of the decade.
De Havilland Canada announced this year it would revive the Canadair water bomber program after production of the last CL-415 stopped in 2015. The company already signed letters of intent from European countries to purchase the first 22 of the new DHC-515.
The company has said it is running behind schedule and the first orders aren’t expected before the 2027 wildfire season. The initial production run of 22 planes is expected to last into 2029 or 2030, the company had said in June.
The federal government has set aside $256 million over five years for a cost-sharing fund to help provinces and territories improve their firefighting capacity, including for aircraft.
Davidson, the Ontario fire management technician, said waiting years for new planes could test the limits of an aging fleet. And given the planes reportedly cost upwards of $30 million, he questioned whether provinces could keep up with the costs.
“I think it’s almost time to nationalize fire in this country,” he said, an idea Gradek, the aviation management lecturer, and Flannigan, the wildland fire professor, also raised, though all acknowledged there would be hurdles.
Fire management is a provincial responsibility, raising jurisdictional questions, along with logistical issues such as where the planes would come from and how they would be paid for.
But a national fleet operating out of existing military bases and deployed to areas where extreme fires are forecast could make a difference, said Flannigan. He also pointed to examples of passenger jets being converted into water bombers as one way to bolster a fleet.
“This is all stuff that would have to be sorted out,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore.”
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