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Training wildfire fighters in Western Canada

Fighting wildfires is not for the faint of heart at the best of times. And these aren’t the best of times for wildfire control agencies around the world. With the frequency and duration of wildfires on the rise, the human, environmental and economic consequences are increasingly grave.

Most experts point to global warming as a major culprit. Climbing temperatures are creating fire-prone conditions and igniting concerns among wildfire management specialists worldwide. Jeff Berry is one of these specialists.

A 36-year veteran of the British Columbia Forest Service, largely in airtanker or ‘waterbomber’ operations, Jeff knows a thing or two about fighting fires. He has worked with firefighting agencies around the globe. Today he’s an executive at Conair Group, a global leader in aerial firefighting equipment and services. Conair is involved in fighting the huge wildfire that, on May 30, 2016, devastated part of Fort McMurray and, 30 days later, continued to burn, spreading across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan. It ranks as the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

“Wildlands are turning into kindling in some areas, fuelling fire activity,” explains Jeff. “As the season lasts longer and fires become more aggressive, firefighting agencies are struggling to address these new challenges. To cope with this new reality, they’re realizing that they need to upgrade both their equipment and fire management strategies. This is where CAE, with its expertise in full mission training, is going to be an invaluable partner for us.”

Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development, Conair Group

Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development, Conair Group

Blazing the trail in wildfire management

In February 2016, CAE signed an agreement with Conair to create the world’s first wildfire training and simulation centre in British Columbia. Together they will develop wildfire-based scenarios to use on a CAE-built Avro RJ85 full-flight simulator qualified to Level D, the highest flight simulator qualification. CAE will also train Conair’s Avro RJ85 AT airtanker pilots.

“We’re looking forward to applying our experience in providing armies, navies and air forces with integrated training systems services to the world of wildfire suppression,” enthuses Mike Greenley, Vice President and General Manager, CAE Canada. “This partnership expands our footprint in Canada while enabling us to continue enhancing public safety and security. Wildfire fighters work in challenging and often dangerous conditions and, now, we’ll be able to help them safely prepare for their missions.”

At the same time, CAE is working with Defence Research and Development Canada's Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) and the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) to fully assess wildfire-fighting training needs. This analysis will provide the foundation for developing more effective training solutions for wildfire fighters.

Integration is key

Conair intends to grow its current fleet of five Avro RJ85 AT aircraft, the ideal airtanker in any terrain, considerably in the coming years. The new training centre will allow Conair to train its RJ pilots at home, as opposed to on simulators in Switzerland. It will also enable the company to simulate, for the first time, entire wildfire-fighting scenarios under a variety of conditions. The benefits to both firefighters and the general public are huge.

Plane over Okanogan County

“The trickiest part in fighting wildfires is always integrating the different resources working on the fire, from helicopters and airtankers to ground resources,” stresses Jeff. “By testing standard operating procedures on real scenarios, we’ll be able to improve the entire team’s proficiency and better protect the forest, people and their assets on the ground. We’ll also see where any procedural shortcomings are and work with the agency to adapt them to the ever-changing situation. And because simulation is such a safe and cost-effective way to train, we can keep practising missions and contingencies until they’re fully tested and engrained.”

The sky is the limit

Pass over fire Jeff and his team see a tremendous opportunity for the centre to become a global training hub on a variety of firefighting aircraft. In fact, word of the new centre is spreading rapidly, with firefighting agencies in the United States expressing an interest in benefitting from the centre’s unique capabilities.

“Our partnership with CAE is not only crucial, it’s very exciting,” says Jeff. “Together we have the potential to become the world leader in full wildfire suppression mission training. That’s a prospect that makes me extremely proud.”

In the meantime, CAE and Conair expect to have the centre up and running in the fall of 2017, with pilot training scheduled to begin in January 2018.