The pilots fighting the horrible fires in BC this summer also deserve a BIG THANK YOU for what they have done, under horrendous conditions, to try to save so many communities from burning.

AMY CARMICHAEL AND CAROL HARRINGTON

(CP) - Like everything else about this unprecedented B.C. wildfire season, the experiences of pilots battling the infernos with water bombers and helicopters are horrifying and awe-inspiring.

They've flown more than twice as many missions than they would in an entire fire season and have seen three of their colleagues die.

After seeing trees explode into black smoke in front of them and flying with flames above them, they have been trying to come up with new tactics against this year's monster blazes.

Rules governing how long they can fly have been relaxed, which is starting to worry some flyers battling exhaustion from several weeks of uninterrupted 12-hour days.

Dozens of fixed-wing water bombers and bucket-carrying helicopters have been working in the smoke-filed skies of southern British Columbia, where tinder-dry forests have been a playground for wildfires.

Tens of thousands of B.C. residents have been forced from their homes over the last few weeks and hundreds of homes have been destroyed.

And the fire season, which began in late May, still has a month to go."It hasn't let up since, and it's causing us some problems with fatigue but we're working with Transport Canada to make sure they get enough rest," says Jeff Berry, manager of the provincial air tanker centre.

Until the province's forests began burning this summer, pilots were limited to eight hours of flying in a 12-hour day but after a request from the B.C. government, Transport Canada increased the number of consecutive days they could fly to 60 from 42.

"They changed the rules to meet the circumstances," says helicopter pilot Brian Dougherty of Quesnel, B.C. "Hopefully nobody will get too tired and have an accident."

So far this season, crashes have claimed a helicopter pilot and the two pilots of a four-engine water bomber - the only fatalities among firefighters so far. The engineers who maintain the air fleet are getting tired too, says Dougherty, 46, who has fought fires for more than 20 years. They work at night when aircraft are grounded and the pilots trying to grab a few hours sleep.

"After working lots of hours they could start making mistakes and forget to put a bolt or two back on," he says. "And that's when we start having aircraft failures."

The pilots are pulling out all the stops but to their frustration, they are still being beaten by the blazes. In the critically dry forest, the fires suddenly charge up to extreme levels with just a breath of wind.

"We've had situations on the McGillivray fire that blew up where the pilot was seeing orbiting fire several hundred feet above," Berry says. "They could hear branches and limbs bouncing off the belly of the plane."

Dougherty, now working the fires near Cranbrook, will always remember his first flight over area swept by the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, which razed more than 200 Kelowna-area homes.

"From the air, that one looks like a moonscape," he says. "It burned so hot, power poles melted to the ground and there's nothing left.

"It looks like a gravel pit. The fire was so intense it burnt the mineral soil. Nothing will naturally grow there now. They will have to seed the area."

The frustration has been building among pilots used to being able to douse fires easily.

In these conditions, says tanker captain Neal Fix, it's a whole different war and the old weapons don't work.

"We've been losing a lot," he says. "Usually we win most of the time, I can't give you an exact percentage, but in the area of 90 per cent.

"But in the last couple weeks when we've been going out, we've been losing 90 per cent of the time."

Fix says the worst is flying over and seeing the consequences of losing.

The 18-year veteran usually spends his time flying over destroyed forests and had never seen so many homes burn as he did in Kelowna.

"One morning we were working on the fire line, protecting homes. We went over one subdivision and it was gone, burned to the ground," Fix says.

"It was an important mission, but we were diverted to a sawmill that was on fire where a whole bunch of people will have lost jobs."

The wind, heat and bone-dry timber have combined to create firestorms that have pushed fires to rank six, the top of the B.C.

Forest Service's wildfire rating scale. "When it goes rank six and you get fireballs in the air you can't do anything but stand back and be awed," says Dougherty.

Seeing that kind of devastation has Berry worried that a pilot or ground worker will do something drastic after watching a city burn.

"I hope this situation doesn't cause anyone in the crew to try and do something extraordinary, because it would have little effect on the fire and place them in grave danger," the tanker boss says.

Dougherty also sees the impact of the fires on wildlife, as bears, deer and mountain sheep, even rattlesnakes, are chased from the mountainsides.

"All the animals are all in the valley bottoms," he says.

Under that kind of pressure, new ideas have been coming fast from the crews, says Berry.

"We're now doing mass launches by multiple aircraft during the initial stages of a fire," he says. "We're using a more highly concentrated retardant and much higher coverage levels than we normally would."

Dougherty says a relatively recent innovation has been the use of the satellite-based global positioning system to pinpoint fires quickly.

"If someone spots a fire, they get the GPS, pass it on to the pilots or ground crews, who then punch it into their computers and can drive directly to the fire origin," says Dougherty, who now usually flies spotter missions but still pitches in with water drops when needed.

"Before, we used to fly around in circles looking for the fire origin then call it in on the radio."

To keep crews safe, Berry says satellite phones were installed in planes, linking them directly to the dispatch centre. Staff monitoring the weather and fire behaviour now can pull a pilot out of a hot spot at a moment's notice.

"That has allowed us to deliver the maximum amount of retardant in the minimum amount of time," he says.

Berry says he is shocked tankers have already flown almost 1,100 air tanker missions and dropped 22 million litres of retardant.

The average number of flights in a season for the fixed-wing fleet is 500, dropping five million litres of retardant.

But the deluge was still not enough to save some Kelowna suburbs and the village of Louis Creek, north of Kamloops.

Pilots also now wear fire-retardant flight suits that, when exposed to heat, bake into crispy material that falls off rather than catching fire.

Berry has been able to call on reinforcements from Quebec and the Yukon but the pool of the highly skilled firefighting pilots is not that deep.

"These types, they don't just grow on trees," he says.

The Canadian Press, 2003

09/1/2003 18:12 EST