Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer of Fire

We returned from our Kelowna deployment late Tuesday. Now we again find ourselves preparing Chopper 9 to go into yet another fire. Yes the fire season is firmly upon us. This time we are preparing to fly to the town of Lilooet British Columbia. A small fire there has grown to a large fire and evacuations could be imminant.

Word also this morning that a fire that we had flown on earlier this week near Terrace Mountain has grown to be a monster. There are now 2200 people in a nearby town on evacuation order. We still have crews on the ground in the area but the NOTAM has been modified to 12000 ft above and 5 mile around the fire.

The mission to Lilooet will not involve us overnighting at this point.
There is lightning in the forecast, this could be the mother of all fire seasons.

Monday, July 20, 2009

We're In!

Chopper 9 waits on the flightline with other helicopters at the Kelowna Airport

The call came shortly after 2PM.

"Murman, standby to copy frequency and code information"
The sound of the two-way startled me out of a daydream of happier times. I looked over at Guiv our pilot who suddenly came to life on his easy chair in the Pilots lounge at the Shell hangar.

"This is it, we're in." I said as I fumbled for my note pad to copy down the numbers. We had been waiting for a good part of the day waiting to gain access into the restricted airspace to gather tape of the fire areas being attacked from the sky.
Guiv climbs into Chopper 9 as we prepare to fly into the Fire zone.

We soon found ourselves in the air and heading into the fire zone.
There were a number of bucketing helicopters working the fire. We watched from our position above the firefighting helos.

I am working the FLIR camera and attempting to acquire targets to put to tape.

This is what we flew to Kelowna for, access into and around the fires. Up until now we have been relegated to the outer limits. As a guy who loves to get right in there, it was kind of difficult to be waiting for a call while the fire rages just a few miles away. But no matter we are in and now we can do what we came here to do - shoot directly above the fire.

A shot out my window as fly over the Glenrosa fire scene.

Mission accomplished.

Day 2 Kelowna Fires

We are now into day two. At least the smoke has cleared somewhat. We began the day with a full crew meeting to discuss and comeup with a game plan. We have a number of people here on the ground in Kelowna to cover these fires.

We are still working our forestry contacts to gain access into the restricted airspace. But for now we recon-ed all three fires from just outside the NOTAM restrictions.
It was a productive flight. We were able to get the first shots of the Terrace Mountain Fire. This fire is located about 20 miles to the northwest of Kelowna. This fire is not threatening any structures, but has produced most of the troublesome smoke that plagued flight operations yesterday.

This is a shot the Terrace Mountain Fire some 20 miles to the North of Kelowna.

Another shot as taken from my crew window of the Terrace Mountain Fire north of Kelowna. This non interface fire is producing most of the smoke in the Kelowna area and has ground crews observing its behaviour.

We continued to fly around the backside of it and headed to the backside of both Rose Valley and Glenrosa fires. Smoke on the back side was such that it made shooting from this position unfeasible.

This is a look from the east side of Lake Okanagan looking at the Glenrosa fire. This fire is an interface fire and has more than 11,000 people displace due to evacuation orders.

The flight was not a write off. We did return with shots of each fire location that will no doubt find their way to air during the cast this evening.

Hopefully we will have been able to get clearance to enter the fire zone at a reduce altitude and deliver some killer material for the team.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Wait

We have been on the ground making calls and attempting to coordinate with the Air Ops side of the Forestry Service.
With the fire less than 24 hours old we are understandably low in the priority que at the moment.

The current flight restrictions around the area are 7000ft and below to the south of the Kelowna Control Tower due to smoke and air operations around the fire. As you get closer to the fire sites themselves the NOTAM (Notice to AirMen) calls for a 5 miles radius with a 9000 ft altitude restriction.

A look at the fire activivity as we lift off from the Kelowna airport earlier this morning

At around 11:00 we did a recon flight with these restrictions. We were able to get some shots of fire activity from a distance at an altitude of 7000. When we attempted to go to the 9000 ft level, smoke and cloud made further shooting unfeasible. We returned to our base at the Kelowna Airport to again wait.

Another medium helicopter arrives for potential hire by Forestry to support Fire operations.

I have noticed a number of medium helicopters arriving in the past two hours. They are all here with buckets awaiting to be contracted by Forestry to provide air support over the fire. They too sit and play the waiting game.


This has been a flight week that can be described in one word - FIRE.

House fire, boat fires and as I sat down to a chicken BBQ with my son, the phone rang with word of another fire. This time of the forest variety and it is serious. The call was to prepare the deployment of Chopper 9 and her FLIR broadcast camera to Kelowna.
The last time I got a call like this for Kelowna was during the hot dry summer of 2003 when a wild fire ripped through the outer parts of town destroying hundreds of homes and causing millions of dollars of dammage.

As we left at dawn to the fire zone, word of 12 homes already lost and thousands of people evacuated. The situation is very fluid at this moment and now that we have arrived we are awaiting further instructions.

The smoke rises into the horizon as we transit to Kelowna. This plume is from a second fire in the Kelowna area near the Rose Valley Dam.

A look from 8000 ft as we fly past the Glenrosa fire West Kelowna. This blaze was discovered on Saturday afternoon has already forced thousands to be evacuated and reports indicate as many as 12 structures have been destroyed.

A shot of the smoke lingering in the air as we fly into Kelowna

I shall attempt to keep updating with photos and give you an idea of what it is like to cover a wild fire from a news gathering helicopter.
But for now we wait.
For the most up to date information please go to the ctv web site by following the link and click on CTV British Columbia.

For now we sit and wait at the Kelowna airport until we coordinate with Fire Flight Operations.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Death from Above

After a much needed and restful vacation, I have returned back to the News Gathering fold with a double duty in the skies over Vancouver. Kinda nice really, flying the clear skies of summer. Now if only we could get ourselves a big story- err- big visual story.
My recent tours of duty in the clouds have produced very little in the "Big Story" catorgory. Instead I seemed to be doomed to flying minimum hours during our show and providing what we call in the business "bumper and weather alminac" shots for the broadcast. It can ware on "story hunter" like myself as over time you begin to feel like you have lost the edge or are just cursed.
But coming back from 3 weeks away from the grind, where I only gathered sand and sun, I had found new energy and enthusiam for what is is I do.

That said, Monday was like most, a couple of flights to check out potential calls that could yield what I had been yearning for. They turned out to be routine, nothing to write home about.
But it was on my flight on Tuesday during the show, I was to witness something that will stay with me for a long time.

We were over the PNE grounds in east Vancouver when my Blackberry began to vibrate wildly. Nodoubt Gregg, our ears on the desk, had something he wanted us to check out. Just as the device began to gyrate around the console, the two-way radio cracked with Gregg's voice asking me to check the message and head there asap.
It seems there had been a crash on the 99 near the 91 interchange. Usually these things are nothing more that shots of twisted wreckage and a line of motorists trying to get home to thier families. But this would be different.

It took us a bit longer than usual to get into the airspace over the scene because of a number of things, not the least of it being the location was next to a very busy airport at Boundry Bay.

I was able to survey the scene from a distance and see a medivac helicopter landing on the highway. I thought if nothing else the heli evacuating a victum will make this assignment visual.
Once granted direction into the airspace we took a position over the scene. I used my lens to get in close to assess what was hapening below.

It looked like two vehicles, both with heavy damage and EMT crews working feveroushly to free a trapped person. As I zoomed closer I could see the rescuers free the individual and place them onto a stretcher. The Paramedics working hard on this person. A flurry of activity and an immage of them administering CPR.

"This is bad" I said to our pilot. "They are doing chest compressions on the victim."
This was nothing that any photog worth his time has not seen before. I too was no different, I had over the years seen many scenes like this unfold before my lens. Each one of them was personal. But somehow being at 1500ft somehow makes covering scenes like this impersonal, clinical, detached. Bomber crews from the 40's describe this same detachment from thier enemy.

"We are coming to you in 30 seconds" a voice belonging to Jimmy our man back at CTV Control.
I widen out slightly so as not to reveal a licence plate number or something that could potentially cause this person's family (if they were watching) to identify thier loved one.

The scene was very desperate below. A team of skilled people doing everything to save a life.

They came to us and I slowly zoomed into the scene. Not too close, but close enough to see the drama unfold.
Suddenly my headset rings with Jimmy's voice, "Clear!"

Now we were off the air and as we repositioned the aircraft and my lens left the scene below, an other scene revieled itself just a kilometer or so to the north. More carnage on the 99. This time it appeared as though there were 4 vehicles involved. I relayed the information to the show producer. We did not know at the time, but these two scenes were related.

I panned the the FLIR camera back to the dire site where paramedics were doing thier thing. I zoomed in close to give me any indication of what was happening. Then all at once, the body language of those on the ground, heads and shoulders down, indicated the battle to save a life was lost. Chest compressions had stopped. Urgency was now gone. Two firefighters covered the person with a sheet. All of it captured within my viewfinder.

My God, I had just witnessed someone's death at 1500 ft.

It was a quiet flight back to base, one I will not forget.
As I starred out of my window, I said a little prayer for the family of that person and for those men and women who tried so hard to save a stranger's life.

As it turned out the victim was an elderly lady who had some how ended up traveling at speed on the wrong way of the freeway. The other scene to the north was caused by someone trying to avoid her car. It has sparked a debate about testing drivers of an advanced age.