Loewen sings praises of night helicopters

Mascot Bertie Beaver and Todd Loewen, Alberta Minister of Forestry and Parks, with a night vision enabled helicopter, at the Slave Lake Airtanker Base April 29. Bertie Beaver and the Slave Lake branch of Alberta Wildfire welcomed Minister Loewen that day for a news conference on wildfire preparedness.

Pearl Lorentzen
For South Peace News

“We continue to plan for the worst,” Alberta Minister of Forestry and Parks Todd Loewen, told a group of Alberta journalists in a virtual round table on wildfires on April 30.

The day before, Loewen was at the Slave Lake Airtanker Base for a news conference on the Community Fireguard Program, night-vision equipped helicopters, and more funding for airtankers.

Also, all three night-vision equipped helicopters hired by the Government of Alberta for this season were in Slave Lake that day.

Loewen posed with mascot Bertie Beaver in a Talon Helicopters AS365 Dauphin, says Leah Lovequist, wildfire information officer.

“The helicopter is night vision goggle certified and equipped with a 900-L tank and a snorkel that can draw in water from depths as shallow as 20 inches,” she says.

“In 2022, Alberta Wildfire began using this night-vision helicopter, and this wildfire season two more night vision helicopters have been added to the fleet,” she adds.

“There are 20 Alberta Wildfire firefighters who are trained to direct nighttime firefighting operations with these specialized helicopters. In 2023, firefighters carried out 60 missions across 20 wildfires utilizing the night vision helicopter.”

So far this wildfire season, the fleet of night vision helicopters has been deployed on four wildfires, including the recent M.D. of Peace River – Shaftesbury fire.

The Shaftesbury fire started on April 23 southwest of Peace River. It grew quickly to 1,500 hectares and caused a one-day evacuation.

At the round table, Loewen said that the reason the Shaftesbury fire didn’t grow overnight was because of these helicopters and accompanying crews.

Lowen spoke to the crews of the night-vision helicopters and airtankers the day before in Slave Lake.

With the Shaftesbury fire, he said, the airtanker crews dropped retardant on the edges of the fire during the day. They assumed they would need to return the next day; however, since the helicopters and firefighters fought the fire at night, by the morning they did not need to return.

At the round table, one of the journalists asked if the government was seeking advice from Indigenous people.

First Nations and Métis people are very involved in wildfire fighting, said Loewen. Part of the work force are Firetack (FTAC) crews, comprised of First Nation and Métis Settlement members who work on contract to Alberta Wildfire.

Loewen met with some of these firefighters, who had between 20 to 40 years of experience.

One of the things they mentioned was the importance of fighting wildfires at night. In the past, most of the firefighting except making dozer guards occurred during the day, said Loewen. At night, the fire tends to be less active, so efforts can be more efficient.

“Technology is playing a big role for suppression,” said Loewen.

Along with the helicopters, Alberta has invested in drones for thermal imaging and AI to predict where and how fires might burn.

Since Jan. 1, Alberta Wildfire has extinguished around 200 wildfires, Loewen said at the round table on April 30. He reminded people to stay vigilant to avoid human-caused fires and protect their homes using FireSmart strategies.

Of the 2024 wildfires, 70 per cent were caused by humans and the rest were being investigated, but likely caused by humans. Later in the season, lightning will start fires, but human-caused ones can be avoided.

Fireguard program

Alberta has had fireguards for years, said Loewen, but the new Community Fireguard Program is more extensive.

In the fall of 2023, the Government of Alberta launched the Community Fireguard Program. The initial budget was $5 million. In 2024, the government added another $14 million.

The program is administered by Forest Resource Improvement Association of Alberta (FRIAA). Fireguards remove flammable material from around communities and are maintained by grazing or controlled burns.

An April 16, 2024 Slave Lake Lakeside Leader article noted the M.D. of Lesser Slave River applied for fire guards around Marten Beach, Broken Paddle, and Mitsue Industrial Park. The M.D. of Opportunity has built a fire guard at Red Earth Creek and Wabasca and in December 2023 applied for a FRIAA grant construction of one for Calling Lake and Sandy Lake, and maintenance for Wabasca.

On April 30, Loewen said, that the Community Fireguard Program was in conversation with 12 or so communities about building and maintaining fire guards.

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