Air tanker fleet
Air tanker bases
The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) has six air tanker bases, located at the Fort Smith, Hay River, Yellowknife, Fort Simpson, Norman Wells, and Inuvik airports.
Forest Management Division, Aviation Services is responsible for the management and operation of these bases. The Division controls and coordinates air attack operations through the Territorial Duty Officer.
Air tanker fleet
The current GNWT air tanker fleet consists of 10 air tankers and four bird dog aircraft.
Air Tanker Group 1 is based at the Fort Smith airport, and consists of:
One Birddog (King Air 100) aircraft identified as ‘Birddog 101’
Four Air Tractor 802A FireBoss Air Tanker aircraft identified as Tanker 640, Tanker 641, Tanker 642 and Tanker 643
Air Tanker Group 2 is based at the Yellowknife airport, and consists of:
One Birddog (King Air 100) aircraft identified as ‘Birddog 102’
Four Air Tractor 802A FireBoss Air Tanker aircraft identified as Tanker 644, Tanker 645, Tanker 646 and Tanker 647
Air Tanker Group 3 is located at the Hay River airport, and consists of:
One Birddog (AC690 Turbo Commander) aircraft identified as ‘Birddog 103’
One Lockheed Electra L-188 Air Tanker aircraft identified as Tanker 416
Air Tanker Group 4 is based at the Hay River airport, and consists of:
One Birddog (AC690 Turbo Commander) aircraft identified as ‘Birddog 104’
One Lockheed Electra L-188 Air Tanker aircraft identified as Tanker 417
Bird dogs and air attack officers
In aerial attacks on wildland fires, a number of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters operate in close proximity over wildland fires, which is an automatic restricted airspace. The bird dog pilot has responsibility for the direction of air traffic over and in the immediate vicinity of a wildland fire.
An Air Attack Officer also flies in the right seat (first officer seat) in the Bird Dog aircraft. He or she assesses the fire and directs the air tankers to the most effective and safe drop locations. The Air Attack Officer is an experienced fire specialist with knowledge of air attack techniques and ground crew strategies so that air tankers can best assist the ground crews suppressing the fire. He or she is also responsible for all communications to crews on the ground, other aircraft in the air, ENR regional offices, and air tanker bases.
In the air, each Air Tanker Group there is a bird dog aircraft which is provides a lead-in to ensure the flight path and drop height is safe and clear of any obstructions/hazards for the Air Tankers drop.
Services that Air Tankers provides include:
Initial Attack (IA) on wildland fires predicted or threatening to exceed the capabilities of ground resources ;
Sustained Action (SA) on project fires where specific attainable objectives are in place; and
Holding action on fires where a delay in ground forces is anticipated.
Air tankers do not put out fires. This is done by fire-fighting crews on the ground.
In initial attack, air tankers are able to drop water, fire retardant and/or Class A fire-foam on or near small wildland fires to limit their spread until ground crews arrive to extinguish them.
In sustained action, air tankers:
Support ground control lines (by dropping on guard lines to dampen the area);
Limit the fires’ growth on portions of the fires perimeter (controlled drops on or in front of a portion of the fire); and
Cool hot spots (by Air Tanker short term or long term retardant drops above these identified spots to bring the temperature down).
Air tanker upgrade in 2017
In 2017, the existing GNWT skimmer air tanker aircraft has been replaced with eight new Air Tractor 802AF (AT802AF) FireBoss aircraft. Purchasing the new aircraft was determined to be much less expensive than upgrading the existing fleet.
FireBoss aircraft are capable of working as a land-based aircraft or as a float plane, the Fire Boss can skim water from nearby water sources to continue fighting a fire without having to return to base. The Fire Boss can load up to 3,025 litres of water in 12 to 15 seconds and be back on its way to the fire line in less than 30 seconds.
Fire retardant, foam, and/or water are dropped by the FireBoss to slow growth of a wildland fire. Depending on the requirements of the mission, water can be mixed with foam inside the aircraft. This delays evaporation of the water and helps it penetrate deeper into the ground. The new air tanker can also carry long term fire retardant (red color), which is ground loaded at an Air Tanker Base before it takes off and helps suppression efforts and assist in reducing wildland fires growth. These different retardant mixtures are used cool it down and assist ground crews in containing the blaze.
The targeting accuracy of these aircraft allows firefighting crews to take a more aggressive approach to fighting a fire.