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Council seeks staff input on quick-strike, aerial firefighting

Blackcomb Helicopters offers rebuttal to Whistler FIRST proposal

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After hearing duelling proposals related to quick-strike, aerial firefighting in Whistler in recent weeks, council is looking for direction from staff before deciding where to go next.

At the March 7 Committee of the Whole, helicopter pilot Stu Wild presented his Whistler FIRST proposal, which envisions a not-for-profit, quick-strike aerial firefighting helicopter service for Whistler, operated under a transparent trust and governed by a five-person board of directors (see Pique March 9, Dousing the flames, before it's too late).

With a commitment of $800,000 to $1 million, Wild would launch the service this summer with a skeleton crew of one leased aircraft, two pilots and two engineers. Funds not used would be rolled over to the next year.

At the March 21 council meeting, Blackcomb Helicopters' (BH) base manager Steve Gray gave a presentation arguing that BH already provides much of what Whistler FIRST is proposing, at no direct cost to the municipality.

"We've proven our ability to provide these and other emergency services since 1989 in Whistler," Gray said.

"What we're comparing here is an idea to an actual helicopter company that is Whistler based, with extensive infrastructure, aircraft, employees and equipment."

In his presentation, Gray said that BH's policy has always been to provide fire service to Whistler in the summer, by "strategically positioning our fleet of 18 helicopters where they're needed most."

As Whistler is BH's largest base, the company always keeps between four and seven helicopters on hand, Gray said.

"Even if a helicopter is on a tour or a local flight, we can quickly return the helicopter to base to reconfigure for fire, and launch it within minutes without shutting down," he said.

"In most cases, however, there is an aircraft sitting on the ramp with a bucket nearby fuelled and ready to respond."

Gray also touched on BH's extensive flight experience in the Whistler valley, its maintenance facilities and the type of aircraft it has available for firefighting.

Many fires in the Whistler area are fought using a long line and a bucket because of the local geography, Gray said.

"The advantage of a bucket with a long line is the ability to pull water from a small water source in tall trees or small creeks and rivers — that pretty much describes Whistler," he said.

"Many local Whistler fires have been fought this way. If the fire is at 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) elevation, you don't want to have to descend to a lake at valley bottom to get water if you don't have to."

Gray concluded by making a proposal of his own: If BH's services meet RMOW requirements, "we suggest more dialogue and establishing a more collaborative emergency-response plan that specifically involves the use of our aircraft and other BC Forest Service aircraft," he said.

The response could involve regular updates on available aircraft in Whistler, specifically during higher fire danger ratings, as well as a training program for RMOW operational staff covering radio procedures, helicopter safety, helicopter types and equipment and more.

"This training could start as early as this spring," Gray said.

If BH doesn't currently meet RMOW requirements, Gray noted the company would be happy to put forward a first-strike proposal of its own.

"This would allow the RMOW to have a dedicated service at a reduced cost, with the ability to turn it on and off as required," he said.

The BC Wildfire Service hires aviation companies on short-term contracts during periods of increased wildfire risk, a ministry of forests spokesperson said.

The agreements vary in value depending on aircraft type, workload assignments, term length and the rates of each company.

Due to the variability of the contracts, Gray wasn't able to provide a dollar figure, but in an email before the meeting he said that "the FIRST proposal would definitely affect part of our Whistler business."

Gray's presentation was accompanied in the March 21 council package by a letter from BH operations manager Andrew Bradley, which covered many of the same points.

On March 18, Wild and Whistler FIRST sent a rebuttal letter of its own.

In it, Wild disagrees that the service proposed by Whistler FIRST is already offered by BH.

"The helicopter required... is not a 'multi-role' helicopter as BH provides. It is a single-role aircraft, which is a great advantage for time-sensitive fire suppression," he said.

The FIRST helicopter will be a firefighting-configured, medium-sized "heli-tanker" capable of delivering 1,700 litres of water or foam from a certified water-delivery tank system.

"It will never leave Whistler or perform 'other' jobs. This will be a dedicated helicopter. 100% guaranteed," Wild wrote.

"The helicopter and crew only have one mission — to be always mission-ready, firefighting configured, provide highly trained crew, and dedicated to respond to a wildfire or natural emergency within the RMOW boundaries within five minutes during daylight summer hours."

After Gray's presentation, Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she has had some preliminary discussions with staff about where the RMOW goes from here.

"I've asked staff to give some thought to next steps (and to put) a report together given all of the information we've received, and come back to us for a discussion and direction," she said.

"And if necessary we would have to consider budget implications at that time."

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