Air attack officer: air controller and wildfire commander

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

Rob Anderson was the air attack officer who initially responded to the McMillian fires. The McMillian Complex is the biggest fire in the history of the Slave Lake Forest Area.

Anderson was stationed in Slave Lake for four years, but this year he’s spent more time in Slave Lake than when he lived here. None of his tours have been in Rocky Mountain House, where he lives.

This year seemed very busy, Anderson says. He’s flown 35 missions, from May 15 to the end of July. Fires usually come in waves, but this year was steady.

At one point in High Level, fighting the Chuckegg Creek Wildfire, he was in charge of 24 helicopters and planes fighting a section of the fire.

Air attack officer’s job is a combination of air controller and wildfire fighter expert. Until a fire has a command team, the air attack officer is in charge.

Air attack officers have six radios going and control the air space in a five-mile radius of a fire.

The tankers fly 500 ft above each other, starting at around 1,500 ft, Anderson says. They orbit and drop on command. ‘Ducks’ daisy chain – fly in one after the other. Then someone in a helicopter might need to GPS the fire, followed by the next tanker.

On the ground, there will likely also be a ‘dozer’ boss, who’ll want to be getting close to the fire.

“Tankers don’t put out fires,” Anderson says. If there are no bulldozers or crews coming, or if other factors exist, the air attack officer might turn down the mission.

The air attack officer’s main objectives are safety and efficiently fighting the fire.

Anderson maps everything on a knee board with help from the pilot, to keep track of all the aircraft, ground crews, and public. It is important to have the ground clear of people, because the retardant and water dropped from the aircraft could hurt people.

Air attack officers are one of the first people to reach a wildfire. They fly with one pilot in a ‘birddog’ plane. Alberta uses both Cessna Caravan C208B and Turbo Commander (TC) 690A planes for ‘birddog’ planes.

These are small fast plane, which beat the air tankers to the fire. Each plane has an infrared cameras to scan the fire if the smoke is thick.

Helicopters sometimes reach the fire first and start bucketing. The first thing an air attack officer does is clear the air space and fly over the fire, to assess the situation and come up with a plan how to fight the fire.

Options include blanketing the fire with skimmers ‘ducks’ and helicopters or boxing it with retardant from the big air tankers. Depending on the wind and other factors, the air attack officer might fight the fire from the head (area where the fire is going) or the sides.

It takes three years to get certified as an air attack officer. Officers have to work on 15 fires and have 40 hours in the air in command and have five hours of training on each type of air tanker.

About 25 per cent of air attack officers trainees quit, Anderson says. They find it too busy and stressful or they get air sick.

“It gets chaotic,” Anderson says. “But most of the time it’s the most fulfilling job.”

Anderson studied a two-year forest technology course at NAIT. He was in a class of 13 which was funded by the government.

Anderson started in forestry in 2001 on a heli-attack crew. These firefighters ride in helicopters to get on the ground in remote areas of a fire.

Slave Lake Forest Area has eight heli-attack crews. There are two each for High Prairie, Loon Lake, Wabasca and Slave Lake.

“One day they (the air attack crew) were short,” Anderson says. “I went up, didn’t get sick and fell in love with it (air attack work).”

Anderson has been an air attack officer for 10 years and flown at least 300 missions.

If Anderson hadn’t gotten into wildfire, he’d have gone into city fire. The main differences between the two are forest vs. buildings and city fire fighters respond to medical calls.

“It’s (wildfire fighting) is a career where you can consistently stay active,” Anderson says.

Rob Anderson, air attack officer with Alberta Ag and Forestry.
Pilot (left) and air attack officer’s seats in a ‘birddog’ plane.

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