Haze, blaze and workdays: Life as the airtanker boss at the Kamloops Fire Centre

For the next two weeks, KamloopsMatters will be profiling a BC Wildfire Service employee at the Kamloops Fire Centre. KFC coordinates the wildfire response across south-central B.C., from Blue River in the north to the U.S. border in the south, and from Bridge River in the west to Monashee Mountains in the east. The fire centre employs around 50 permanent staff and a large number of seasonal support staff. 

The goal of this 10-part feature is to give our readers a better understanding and a bird's-eye view of what happens at the centre, and to put a face to the people who are behind the scenes and on the frontlines.

During wildfire season, it's not unusual for Michael Benson to start his morning in Kamloops, head to Fort Nelson for the afternoon, and wrap up the day in Smithers. 

As a provincial air attack officer, and as the superintendent of airtanker operations, that would be classified as a normal day. 

"We're very nomadic," Benson says with a laugh.

There are 17 air attack officers in all of B.C.; they're the ones who are flying the bird dogs overhead, or as Benson calls it, the "small sports car of an airplane." Kamloops is home to the province's airtanker fleet; there are 24 airplanes in total: eight bird dogs and 16 airtankers.

Each day starts with a lot of preparing. 

Over-flight(via BC Wildfire Service)

"It's really understanding the risks," says Benson. "So we listen to the weather every morning and that just helps us understand what to expect throughout the day, in terms of what fire behaviour we're going to see." 

All the officers meet on a call at the start of each day; they review photos of the fires, go over what happened the previous day and discuss the successes and the challenges of the last 24 hours. 

When they get into their aircraft and head out to a fire, they have a number of responsibilities. 

"The role of the team onboard the airplane is making sure the operations are done very safely," says Benson. 

That includes managing the airspace around a fire, acting as mobile air traffic control.

"You create order of what is a whole lot of aircraft that could be arriving at a fire."

He notes the airspace is very three-dimensional, in that each airplane has its place.

"We stack our airtankers at 500-foot intervals above us, so that they're able to be separated from each other, for safety reasons."

Bird dogs are also tasked with flying all the routes much heavier aircraft (like airtankers carrying 30,000 pounds of retardant) will fly. That's to ensure each run is clear.

"We go down low... that is 100 to 150 feet above terrain. That's kind of the wheelhouse where the airplanes are flying around when they're dropping," says Benson, adding helicopters and water skimming aircraft also fly at the same level of bird dogs.

At the same time, his team is gathering intelligence and passing it on, so fire centres are aware of what the fire looks like.

A single mission can last anywhere between 3.5 to four hours, depending on how complex the blaze is.

"You'll take off from one airport, no guarantees where you'll land. Busy days, we might fly 10 hours... Once we’ve completed responding to the fire, we provide a final update and then you don’t know what’s going to happen; you go to another fire, or you go and land at an airtanker base and prepare for the next one."

Benson has been with BC Wildfire Service for 24 years. The Salmon Arm native started with the organization right out of high school. He got a job on a crew with the Rapattack program. 

It was meant to just be a summer job, while Benson was attending post-secondary. 

"It was fun. It was really awesome camaraderie, really good for learning life and professional skills," he says.

One summer grew into two, which grew into 12 years (Benson went on to get his anthropology degree and a business degree, too). 

"Then I started transitioning into managing helicopters on large fires, and that was a good transition for me, in terms of learning the language of aviation, managing multiple aviation resources, and then I was doing that for a few years while starting my training with the airtanker program, as an air attack officer."

It took Benson about one and a half years to complete his air attack officer certification (there are three levels, and they're not easy). 

Some of the things he loves about his job is being high in the sky.

"Rarely do people get to fly in that sort of environment, 100 to 150 feet above terrain, in smoke, and in the amazing terrain of British Columbia," he says.

However, it can be hard some days. Benson has a small family at home and there are many times he has to be on the road (or in the air).

Furthermore, the position has high stress and high demands.

"There are a lot of responsibilities," he says. "You're ultimately responsible for the safety of all those aerial resources responding to a fire."

You also have to be on top of your game in the bird dog, he says. Air attack officers have to monitor radios and satellite phones, and have to constantly be communicating with everyone within the system. 

"It can be quite fatiguing. There's very little downtime mentally (when you're in the airplane)."

But it's all worth it, says Benson. 

"Being part of the airtanker program, you can effect change in such a short period of time just because of the speed and the power of the airtanker fleet. I think for anyone in any job, if you can see the results of your job, that’s a reinforcer within itself. "

Editor's note: This is the third article in the 10-part feature. Read part one here and part two here.

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