by GORDON KENT / Edmonton Journal
An Edmonton company that has fought forest fires in Western Canada for more than 50 years hopes to spread its wings to more business in countries around the world.
Air Spray Ltd., bought in the early 1970s by the late aviation pioneer Don Hamilton and now owned by his daughter Lynn Hamilton, supplies the air tankers that drop cascades of colourful fire retardant or water to contain blazes until ground crews put them out.
The company has had long-term contracts with the Alberta and B.C. governments since 1967 and also works in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, said chief operating officer Paul Lane, Hamilton’s husband.
But in recent years it has boosted American operations as well, winning contracts with such agencies as the U.S. Forest Service and several states including California, where it has set up a base in the northern California city of Chico.
“It’s almost a longer season (in California) than here. It starts earlier and goes later,” Lane said.
“The whole issue around global warming and the greater degree of infrastructure in the rural-urban interface is getting bigger … There’s lots more pipeline and other infrastructure than there ever was.”
Now he’s eyeing expansion even further from home as Australia and countries in South America, where Chile and Argentina were hit with major fires in the last few years, work to boost their large air-tanker firefighting capacity.
“We have a couple of Spanish-speaking pilots in the U.S. program. We’re looking at sending them in the winter to operate down there … As countries become more affluent, they’re starting to have resources to put into this.”
Although Air Spray’s head office is in Edmonton, operations and maintenance are located in a 9,300-square-metre facility at the Red Deer airport.
The massive twin hangars are each big enough to hold three of the huge 1960s-era Lockheed Electras and other aircraft during the regular maintenance that keeps staff busy throughout the winter.
They need a computer program to arrange the planes most efficiently in the space, which also houses shops and equipment to make parts.
The company is the world’s largest operator of the Electra, with nine refurbished and overhauled aircraft that are guided by “bird dog” planes to fire locations where they dump their 11,386-litre loads of retardant, Lane said. Each load costs $4,000 to $5,000.
There are also smaller float planes that scoop up water for blazes near homes and property and a four-engine jet tanker Air Spray recently developed.
The fleet is deployed to airfields during the fire season depending on where the risks are highest — the typical fire they handle is about 100 kilometres from where they’re based and covers 1.5 hectares, Lane said.
“The aim is to have these fires contained as much as possible by 10 o’clock the following morning.”
The company has 134 full-time Alberta staff and 40 seasonal pilots for firefighting, along with 46 California employees. The Red Deer facility provides training on two simulators, including a mock-up of an Electra cockpit where 17-year air tanker pilot Bruce Gordon worked last week with a colleague.
He described operating the big machines as “exhilarating. We get to fly low, fly around the mountains, turn in the valleys. The challenge is to do all that safely.” On average, pilots are in the air for an hour a day when they’re in the field, mixing periods of inactivity with busy times when they’re in the air for six or eight hours daily, he said.
“It might be cool and damp, and then a heat wave will come through and the forest will burn for maybe a week or two … It’s a very satisfying line of work".