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Yukon Yellow Birds

ONTARIO CL-215s DEPLOY TO THE YUKON. Story by Robert S. Grant • PHOTOS BY JASON FRIESEN – first published summer 1999


Tanker 266 flown by Ian Pentney and Kevin Wingfield returns to Whitehorse.

A GREY ROCK WALL split by sharp-edged vertical crevasses passed by the right wing-tip float. Wheeling into a hard left turn and dropping the nose steeply, I watched the choppy surface of Rose Lake slide under our Canadair CL-215. Slamming into the waves with both throttles at maximum power, we waited until the water tanks filled and I selected probes up at 78 knots.

Seconds later and airborne again, we pointed Tanker 266 toward what Yukon Forest Fire Centre personnel called the Primrose fire. Behind us, 12,000 pounds of sloshing water and Fire Foam 103 created millions of small bubbles. It was my leg now. Before long, a press on the control column button released our short-term retardant on the slope of a burning hill and we banked around for another pick-up. Behind and below the CL‑215’s tail, nothing remained of our target except vast clouds of rising steam and a few glowing embers.

We were not the first CL‑215 to drop water in the Yukon Territory, but our arrival a few days before marked the first time the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) had been called upon to help. Four of our tankers with two pilots each and several AMEs made the trip from Sudbury, Timmins, Thunder Bay and Dryden. Stationed in Whitehorse, each aircraft departed from the gold rush community’s 7,200-foot runway nearly every day to assist the firefighters battling the flames below our bellies.

Not surprisingly, we learned that the objectives of the Yukon fire control agencies resembled those of Ontario’s agencies. With air and ground forces, the Whitehorse headquarters ensures protection of forests “… to a level consistent with the present and future needs of the people who are dependent on the resources.” To meet such goals, the Air Operations Section contracts Air Spray of Alberta and Conair Aviation of British Columbia to provide Douglas A‑26s and Grumman Firecats, respectively.

However, in 1998, a large number of fires kept the wheels-only tankers occupied. Two major blazes adjacent to the Alaska Highway and Primrose Lake demanded special attention. The A‑26s and Firecats dropped load after load of long-term, clay-thickened ammonium phosphate retardant until called away to other blazes.

Most of the central Yukon lends itself to land-based tankers, since lakes are not common. In this case, fire fronts near Haines Junction and Primrose Lake happened to have sufficient landable water within 10 minutes’ flying time. Instead of tying up the contract Firecats and A‑26s at these sites, Yukon fire management officials decided to contact the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) in Winnipeg.

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