THE FIRST FIRE OBSERVERS scanning the forests from the open cockpit of a flying boat had the same focus as the air crews of a twin engine airplane or helicopter on patrol today: find the fire and report it – now. The same goal, but the aircraft and means of communication were radically different.
In the 1920s, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Ontario Provincial Air Service experimented extensively with air-to-ground wireless transmission, but at that point few patrol planes carried wireless equipment.
Planes without wireless followed these procedures.
Reporting wildfire using these methods was not always 100% reliable, but it was incomparably faster than ground patrol.
AIR-TO-GROUND WIRELESS TRANSMISSION, meanwhile, was revolutionizing communication. For the first time aerial patrol crews could transmit fire reports to headquarters on the spot. They tapped out the fire report using Morse Code. It was one-way communication only, from aircraft to base.
The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals backed up Royal Canadian Air Force fire patrol operations in Western Canada.
The first RCCS radio station opened at High River, Alberta, in 1922. When the aerial patrol crew detected fire, they sent a message to the base at High River, who in turn, notified the ranger station by phone. A patrol plane on standby transported fire fighters and equipment to the site.
In 1924 RCAF flying boats at Jericho Beach, Vancouver, were equipped with wireless sets. 'After extensive air-to-ground trials, wireless supported coastal patrols became routine'. By 1928 twelve RCCS radio stations supported RCAF forestry patrols in Western Canada.
Watch: RCAF Fire Detection Patrol making a Radio Report. [Forest Fire Fighters of the Skies, 1927. National Film Board.]
Ontario Provincial Air Service radio technician H.A. Robinson and observer Monty Baker, aware of the need for air-to-ground communication in the OPAS, teamed up to build a sending/ receiving set. In the summer of 1924 Baker tapped out a fire report in Morse code to the fire base in Sudbury, the first successful air-to-ground fire report in Ontario. The full story is described in Making Contact.
By end of 1924, two Ontario Provincial Air Service flying boats were equipped with wireless telegraph equipment. But wireless equipment was costly, and competent operators were hard to find. After a short time operations were discontinued.
TODAY the pilot can radio a fire report immediately to fire management headquarters. Satellite technology supports direct radio communication from the most remote areas of the country.
Watch: Reporting a Smoke from the Air, 2001 [Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 2001]
Although technology has advanced dramatically, today’s procedures for spotting and reporting fire from the air are strikingly similar to the first aerial fire patrols.