Feature

Fighting the flames from 1,500 metres above sea level

Helicopters circle two fires near Little Fort, dumping buckets of water while residents gather at a nearby Esso to watch their aerial firefighting.

The hot, smokey and strenuous job of battling wildfires with helicopters

A gas station near Little Fort, B.C. — a small community on the west bank of the North Thompson River — was more like a viewpoint on Friday as a steady stream of people looking for gas and some quick relief became fixated on the billowing smoke coming off the mountains.

"It's really terribly unsettling," said Kitty Braaten, who lives just 20 kilometres north in Clearwater.

Along with her daughter and granddaughter, the trio stare up as a handful of helicopters take turns dousing the fire.

The family is headed to Kamloops to do some shopping and to escape the smoke that's filled their neighbourhood.

"It's just thick. You can hardly breathe," said Braaten.

Their home is safe from the flames for now, but the truck is ready to go if things get worse.

"If we gotta go, we gotta go," she said.

"It's unsettling really, because you never can be just normal. You want the smoke to go away. It's summer, you just want blue skies and beach," she said.

Her daughter, Ronda Miller, spent a decade fighting fires but gave it up after she became a mother.

Her husband still fights fires and was up fighting the very fire that's now garnered an audience.

Clearwater resident Don Turner looks back at the fires burning just 20 kilometres next to his home. 

The fire everyone is staring at the is called the Little Fort Complex. It's made up of two separate fires.

Friday afternoon, the Dunn Lake fire is 1,954 hectares in size and is 20 per cent contained. The other, the Thuya Lake Road fire, is 450 hectres in size and 40 per cent contained.

Both have prompted evacuation orders, and a dozen helicopters circle above them, dropping buckets of water in an effort to contain them.

"Our number one priority is public safety, keeping people safe. The next would be to protect structures, homes, businesses — that kind of thing," said Shannon Bond, fire information officer with Parks Canada's incident management team.

The federal agency is here under the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) agreement, which allows provincial and federal fire agencies to call on each other and work together in times likes this.

Ken Lancour pilots one of the helicopters that has been contracted out to carry out aerial firefighting.

All 35 of Yellowhead Helicopters' aircraft are spoken for across B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

​"It's hot, it's smokey, it's low visibility, multiple aircraft in the air," Lancour said.

But a note left by a resident, only visible from the sky, thanking firefighters makes the job easier.

A sign only visible from the sky shows gratitude to the service aerial firefighters are doing. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The busy airspace is managed by a helicopter coordinator, the person keeps track of whether aircraft have hit their target and when they come down to refuel.

There is also coordination with firefighters on the ground because there are times more than 1,300 kilograms of water are being dumped from the air.

Lancour is part of the initial attack team, flying 1,500 metres above sea level to drop buckets of water on to the fires.

The fires near Little Fort are mostly ground fires, as opposed to a crown fire, which is when flames are running up the branches of the tree. 

When the trees are burning — or candling, as officials call it — Lancour said it can be too dangerous and ineffective to dump water on it. 

"It's burning hot it can cause a lot of swirling winds, and you have ash, smoke, sometimes embers flying at you," he said. 

"You can drop directly on the fire and as soon as you turn away, you'll see the fire pop back up again," he said. 

Lancour said aeriel firefighting is mostly used to slow down or stir a fire; it's still the ground crew that does the heavy lifting.

"It's quite effective slowing things down. But it's definitely the ground crews that get on the ground, that gotta dig that thing out and put it out," He said. 

"We're there to support them. Helicopters aren't putting out any fires, they're just helping," he said.