BCWS to offer aviation staff training for night helicopter operations

Fighting wildfires at night?

Aviation staff at the BC Wildfire Service will be offered night vision training, which will allow them to conduct helicopter operations in the dark.

Erika Berg, BCWS fire information officer, said the training was originally planned for spring of 2023 but had to be pushed back until the next year.

“We had quite an early start to the season so that training was postponed and it's now being set for this upcoming spring — little earlier just in case,” said Berg.

The training comes after two previous trials where BCWS used night vision technology on rotary aircraft, once in 2019 and again in 2020.

Berg said the first trial in 2019 saw the night vision used during reconnaissance flights to detect wildfires. The second, performed in the Okanagan in 2020, saw bucketing operations being performed in a controlled environment.

“Coming out of that, we had further considerations in order to advance the program and one of those was offering our aviation staff training in night vision so that it could be an operation that we have more access to in terms of skill sets,” Berg said.

“This is the potential incorporation of an additional technology, and so we're just really in that exploratory phase and always weighing the risks against the benefit and learning from our partners as well.”

Kelsey Wheeler, operations manager and pilot for Talon Helicopters, said Talon has just won a five-year contract with Alberta Wildfire to use night vision for helicopter operations at night.

“The helicopters is an AS365, we got them in 2018 when they joined our fleet and we upgraded them to NVG capability,” Wheeler said.

“Basically, all the lights and all that interior stuff is changed over so it's compatible with the night vision goggles. So we have night vision goggles that we wear when we're flying.”

Berg said terrain was a further consideration when incorporating night vision into firefighting operations, especially compared to Alberta.

“Even though Alberta is our neighbour, terrain's quite different and because we are so mountainous there is that added risk when flying at night,” Berg said.

Mike Flannigan, a BC Research Chair, Thompson Rivers University professor and renowned wildfire expert, called it a “good idea,” and said similar operations are conducted in other locations, such as California.

He said the use of helicopters at night could aid in suppressing a fire if the resources are available, but added optimally, both helicopters and ground crews would be used.

“If you go fight fires at night, you can't do it just with helicopters, you need to ground crews as well,” Flannigan said.

“It's the boots on the ground that put the fire out, the helicopter aid and assist but without the boots on the ground you're not going to put that fire out.”

Flannigan said wildfires at night are typically quieter, cooler and easier to suppress, making it an optimal time to work the fire.

Berg agreed with Flannigan, saying aircraft assist with controlling the fire and cooling hotspots, not establishing guard or putting out the fire.

“Already with our existing operations, we do work around the clock, we have crews on the ground overnight,” said Berg.

“It's just a matter of safely integrating that night vision into our existing firefighting operations.”

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