Water bombers back in the skies fighting 'Goliath of a fire' in Waterton Lakes National Park

Aerial firefighting crews are once again attacking the Kenow wildfire near the Waterton townsite after poor weather conditions kept aircraft grounded for most of Monday.

High winds and plenty of smoke stopped air crews from attacking the blaze for most of Monday

Watch water bombers in action as they battle the Kenow fire burning in Waterton

5 years ago
Duration 0:49
Aerial firefighting crews are once again attacking the Kenow wildfire near the Waterton townsite after poor weather conditions kept aircraft grounded for most of Monday.

Aerial firefighting crews are once again attacking the Kenow wildfire near the Waterton townsite after poor weather conditions kept aircraft grounded for most of Monday.

"Planes were going up and down 400 feet on their own, and when you're 200 feet off the trees, that's not good," said Mark Missal, air attack officer supervising the air tanker operations in Waterton.

Missal said winds on Monday were reported at 92 kilometres an hour, gusting to 151 km/h. 

Winds were so strong on Sunday, Missal said, he hit his head on the roof of an aircraft while wearing four seatbelts.

"And everything in the back of the plane is blown all over the place even though it's strapped down," he said. "And we're just going, 'this is not worth it, someone's going to get hurt.'"

A member of the aerial firefighting crew stands underneath an L-188 Electra air tanker in Waterton Lakes National Park. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Pat Stier, MLA for Livingston-Macleod, which includes Waterton and Pincher Creek, said he has been monitoring the weather around Waterton for weeks and the blowing winds have been a cause for concern.

"After all, what we've got here is a Goliath of a fire with a wind that is just so, so fast, and it's just fanning the flames and moving this thing a lot faster than anyone predicted." 

Smoke from the roughly 20,000-hectare Kenow wildfire, which crossed from B.C. into Alberta on Monday, limited visibility and kept crews grounded for most of Sunday and Monday, Missal said.

"So we can take off easily enough … but if we can't see where we're coming down, we won't do it.

And we want to make sure that aircraft, once they drop [water], have a long, safe exit out so they can go back and get a reload."

In a news conference on Tuesday, Premier Rachel Notley said efforts to control the fire's eastern border "are likely to be more successful today" now that air tankers and helicopters are back in the fight.

"That work is underway," Notely said. "The wind dynamics will determine whether the eastern border can be held later today. Additional evacuation alerts may be necessary as the situation develops."

Notley said there are nine helicopters and 14 air tankers assisting 135 firefighters on the ground in Waterton. Another 125 firefighters and 23 helicopters are on standby.

'They were getting pounded'

Two of the province's eight air tanker groups are assisting in Waterton, Missal said.

Missal and one other air attack officer are supervising 12 pilots, five aircraft maintenance engineers and lots of support staff maintaining a fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

The CL-215 skimmer plane, more commonly known as a water bomber, sits behind the plane Mark Missal calls the "bird dog." The small plane will go out and monitor conditions before either the CL-215 or the L-188 can fly. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

A smaller plane, which Missal calls "the bird dog," will scout ahead and monitor flying conditions before the larger CL-215 water bombers and L-188 Electra air tankers go to work.

Missal said the Electra can carry a 9,500-litre payload, while the CL-215 can drop more than 4,500 litres in under 12 seconds.

A helicopter takes off to battle the Kenow wildfire, which is spreading through Waterton Lakes National Park. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Helicopters equipped with water buckets have been able to fly more than any of the other air resources, but even they've been grounded on and off through the past few days, Missal said.

"I mean, they're very slow, but [wind is] very hard on a helicopter in terms of maintenance. And yes, they were getting pounded pretty good, too."

Missal said some of the pilots on the aerial team travelled from Abbotsford, B.C., to help fight the Kenow fire, while some are captains with major commercial airlines.

"They come back to do this type of work because nobody in the world gets to fly a plane like this," Missal said.

'Mother nature wanted the burn'

Although air tankers don't put out fires, aerial crews work on suppression and supporting firefighters on the ground to "buy them time," Missal said.

Air tankers drop water, foam and a fire-retardant substance pilots call "red mud," which stops fire from spreading by trapping flammable gasses inside wood and combustible material.

Jared Pierson was at the junction of Highway 5 and Highway 6 just before 10 p.m. MT on Monday night when he took this photo of the Kenow wildfire. (Submitted by Jared Pierson)

"You'll see flame come up to the retardant and then stop, and usually that retardant will be there for a long time," Missal said. "So unlike water and foam that evaporates, the retardant is longterm."

Despite the best efforts of ground crews and the aerial team, conditions in the region were perfect for a wildfire to spread, according to Missal.

"Mother nature wanted the burn this year and there wasn't anything anybody could do about it," he said.

With files from Sarah Lawrynuik