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Peninsula’s Vancouver Island Helicopters crews battle blazes in 3 provinces

Nanaimo pilot reflects on working Cameron Bluffs fire so close to home
This aerial photo shows the fire burning above Highway 4. (Courtesy B.C. Ministry of Transportation)

A Peninsula-based helicopter business is battling blazes in three provinces – B.C., Alberta and Quebec.

“Every resource we have right now is devoted to fires,” said Shane Palmer, director of operations at Vancouver Island Helicopters, based near the Victoria International Airport in North Saanich.

Among the oldest in the business – since 1955 – the bulk of their work is heli logging and heavy lifting for other remote or hard-to-access construction. Wildfire season is dedicated to firefighting.

By the first week in June, they had aircraft battling fires – one in Quebec, three in northern Alberta and two in B.C., including one working the Cameron Lake wildfire up Island.

They’re in the fourth of a five-year contract with Alberta to stage two heavy helicopters there May 1 through Aug. 15, in addition to a fixed-wing tanker fleet, Palmer said.

It’s a little different in B.C., with resources closer at hand, contracts come later and in shorter terms.

To have them spread across the nation this early in the season is unusual, Palmer said, noting the B.C. fire season usually doesn’t start until August.

READ ALSO: Hectares burned in B.C. wildfires four times higher as high heat moves in

VIH pilot Andrew Moore of Nanaimo recently finished his 14-day rotation working the Cameron Bluffs fire – a little closer to home than usual.

“It was close to home … I know personally people affected by the road closure,” Moore said. “You feel the pain of the community a bit and you can imagine how it is for vacationers and businesses that are affected.”

Being inside the line, fighting fires from above as part of a four-crew Sikorsky s61, he could see why Highway 4 was closed. There was no question it had to, Moore said. He could see debris and the work underway. Highway 4 has been closed since June 6 and is expected to re-open – with single-lane alternating traffic – on June 24 or 25.

READ ALSO: Highway 4 re-opening remains ‘on schedule’ as wildfire is under control

No newcomer to firefighting from the skies, Moore has worked for VIH for about 13 years in two stints. He started as a maintenance engineer out of high school, learned to fly at a school in Campbell River and started work flying in northern B.C. in 1997.

Most helicopter pilots feel a sense of duty during the fire season as it’s a way to help out and get together as well, he told the Peninsula News Review.

“A lot of times it’s something of a reunion when you meet up at a big project,” he said, praising the camaraderie and cooperation between the different agencies.

While communication in general can be a challenge between the terrain and smoke, working with other aircraft the pilots get in a circuit among themselves.

“It changes a lot – we’re at the mercy of the elements and the fire behaviour. Plans change and it’s always adapting,” Moore said.

While it was out of control for days, and still listed at 229 hectares, the Cameron Bluffs fire was reclassified as under control just as Moore finished his shift, meaning suppression efforts have ensured the wildfire will not spread.

As of June 20, the wildfire map showed 62 fires burning in the province.

Palmer describes firefighting season as unpredictable.

Moore hopes people will do their part to not aggravate the situation.

“It’s a beautiful province and hopefully people enjoy it and take care of it,” he said. “Be careful with our fires.”

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

Longtime journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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