A pair of of CL-415 amphibious water bombers on loan from Ontario taxi for takeoff from Campbell River Airport Friday morning

Air tanker base bolstered by visitors’ arrival

Crew, amphibious water bombers from Ontario take advantage of recent upgrades to Campbell River firefighting base

Major upgrades undertaken at Campbell River’s air tanker base two years ago are paying dividends as B.C. experiences its worst — and earliest — fire season in years.

Two CL-415 “Super Scooper” amphibious water bombers, part of an influx of personnel and equipment from Ontario, were stationed last week in Campbell River and put to work on fires along the B.C. coast.

The two water bombers and “bird dog”, or spotter, plane were deployed to Campbell River to join a Lockheed Electra tanker and an Erickson air crane helicopter already stationed at the base.

The Campbell River air tanker base has become the main staging area for airborne firefighting equipment for southwestern B.C. since air tanker bases in Abbotsford and in Patricia Bay, in North Saanich, closed in recent years.

The local base was built in the 1970s. It was already due for a “facelift” as the closure of Abbotsford loomed, Bruce Coutanche, forest fire protection officer for air tanker operations, said at the time.

“We were already operational, but they’ve invested $4.5 million in upgrading the air tanker base here,” said airport manager Tyler Massee. “They put in a bigger apron and a new crew facility.”

The changes included connection to city water and sewer services — replacing a well and septic field — and improvements to the electrical system. The containment system for the fire retardant stored on-site was also upgraded.

The 2013 upgrades were made in part to facilitate up to two air tanker groups at the base, and the current fire season has put the extra capacity to use.

The bright yellow, twin-engine CL-415 water bombers are part of an influx of firefighters and equipment deployed to B.C. by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, which began arriving in the province last Tuesday.

That includes 63 front-line firefighters and seven aviation personnel attached to the water bombers and bird dog plane.

The water bombers arrived in Kamloops Tuesday before being sent to Campbell River the next day. Deployments of firefighting resources are determined by the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations based on need. But that does not mean the Ontario crews are limited to fires on Vancouver Island while stationed here.

On Friday, the two CL-415s took off bound for the Puntzi Lake fire west of Williams Lake, followed a short time later by the big L-188 Electra.

One of two CL-415 “Super Scooper” water bombers on loan from Ontario takes off from Campbell River Airport Friday morning, bound for the Puntzi Lake fire near Williams Lake. — J.R. Rardon/Campbell River Mirror

Later that day, an Air Tractor AT-802F amphibious air bomber crashed and sank in Puntzi Lake while working on the blaze. The pilot escaped with only minor injuries, and BC Wildfire officials said the incident did not impact the firefighting efforts of the other air tanker crews.

Two substantial fires on Vancouver Island were fully contained last weekend after burning for more that a week and forcing evacuations in Port Hardy and near Port Alberni.

The 450-hectare Dog Mountain fire near Port Alberni forced the evacuation of a number of cabins along the shore of Sproat Lake. The 17-acre Tsulquate River fire was much smaller, but burned right up to the edge of Port Hardy and forced the evacuation of residents on two of the community’s streets for two days before they were allowed to return under an evacuation alert.

Long-awaited rainfall — heavy at times — arrived on central and northern Vancouver Island over the weekend, though it was variable and did not impact all areas.

“We had a good handle on the two fires on the island just prior to getting that dump of rain,” said Marg Drysdale, fire information officer with the Coastal Fire Centre in Parksville. “Both were contained and the crews were moving on mop-up work before the weather came in.”