How it goes with those water bombers

There’s often a reasonable explanation for things; usually you just have to ask the right people.

For example: the other morning after the big fire north of the Wabasca highway blew up and ran wild, it was calm and no smoke was visible over the Marten Hills. It seemed logical that the water bombers would be out early taking advantage of the calm conditions to hammer the edges of the fire. But no, there were the planes all sitting idle at the airport.

So we called Leah Lovequist, the helpful spokesperson for Alberta Ag & Forestry on topics of forest protection in the district.

One factor, she explained, is the pilots can only fly so many hours in a day. Their time is scheduled to allow them to go quite late into the night, with the light lasting as long as it is. Another factor, Lovequist said, is that with conditions bone-dry, new starts are anticipated pretty much hourly. The planes have to be available to respond to those, because some are bound to be more critical than a fire that isn’t threatening anything but trees.

And wouldn’t you know it. Over the next couple of days there were at least three fire starts in dangerous places that required quick attention from aircraft. One of them was two kilometres north of Slave Lake, and quite capable of burning up houses if not quickly doused. Luckily, the necessary resources were nearby. The tankers were also able to respond quickly and decisively to an outbreak near Faust.

So the big fire by McMillan Lake north of Hwy. 754 was getting lots of attention on the ground and some from the air – but not the full arsenal of attack from the air. In conditions such as were in play last week, the slightest spark can start a wildfire, and with strong wind it can turn into something very ugly, very fast. The authorities have a threat assessment system in place and arrange their resources according to a variety of factors – with danger to human life being at the top of the priority list. Human structures are up there too. Timber has value, obviously, but a fire in the middle of nowhere – no matter how large – is never going to get as much attention as one that threatens a settlement.

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