Nfld. & Labrador

A reliable firefighting plane: A Land & Sea archival special

A fleet of hardy, reliable wartime planes were repurposed as fire bombers, and they had a busy summer in Newfoundland in 1984.

Remodelled Second World War planes were fighting fires in Newfoundland in the 1980s

Pilots were trained to swoop onto a lake to pick up the 800 gallons of water they could drop in each load. (Land & Sea 1984)

In 1984, the forest contributed $265 million to the Newfoundland and Labrador economy each year through the province's pulp and paper industry.

More than 5,000 people in the province worked in the woods or in one of the province's paper mills. There were 1,700 sawmills across the province, producing nearly $9 million of lumber each year. 

The biggest enemy of that industry was forest fires, and one unit of firefighters in the province worked a dangerous and specialized job flying the province's water bomber fleet.

In early April, those 14 pilots and co-pilots were taking refresher courses on flying the six Cansos airplanes modified in the late 1950s in order to operate as water bombers. 

In winter, those pilots, mostly from Newfoundland and Labrador, found work elsewhere: they flew bush airplanes or delivered freight to Labrador, went on scheduled runs in northern Ontario, or even travelled to other countries like Chile to fight fires there.

In the summer of 1984, a forest fire got close enough to Burlington that an evacuation order was possible. (Land & Sea 1984)

But come spring they were back in Newfoundland, ready to prevent forest fires from putting not just the pulp and paper industry but the province's residents at risk.

A tough summer for fire

That job was an important one in the unusually hot summer of 1984. On July 16 the wind picked up and embers from a campfire set the brush in Green Bay aflame. A sawmill was destroyed and the fire got dangerously close to the town of Burlington.

Pilot Ray Melanson said that the fire was one of the toughest ones he'd fought in 20 years of flying Cansos. 

Pilot Ray Melanson said he'd be said to see the Cansos planes replaced with newer, more powerful aircraft. (Land & Sea 1984)

"It was very difficult to find a spot even to dump one load," Melanson said of the 800 gallons of water the planes could drop at a time. 

"When we arrive on the scene early in the morning, there's nothing there, as though it's just a place on the ground where a fire had been. And by 11 or 12 o'clock that day, the place is an inferno again."

The reworked Cansos planes were beginning to be overtaken by a new water bomber, the Canadair CL-215. (Land & Sea 1984)

After two months of hard work, it was two weeks of rain that finally put the fire out. The Cansos helped keep Burlington safe, but in a few years it would be a different kind of plane doing that work; the province was set to have four new water bombers built by Canadair in operation by 1987.

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