Aerial view of fire

THE FIRST DECADE By 1918 it was evident that aircraft could patrol more miles in a shorter time than the most extensive system of ranger patrols – whether on foot, on horseback, or by canoe, bicycle, rail or motor vehicle.

Fire lookouts were few. The area scanned by lookouts was infinitesimal compared to the miles an airplane could patrol. The big question was: were aircraft practical for fire detection?

  • Aircraft cost big dollars to buy and maintain.
  • Patrol planes had to be capable of landing safely in remote wilderness areas, where there were no landing strips or open fields.
  • Patrol crews needed reliable maps, which were not available. Large chunks of Canada’s back country had not been mapped yet.

Canadians decided to take up the challenge. It was time to put aerial fire detection to the test.

BRITISH COLUMBIA: A SPECTACULAR START In 1918 the B.C. provincial government had an H-2 flying boat constructed for fire detection purposes.

H-2 Flying Boat

Early test flights were great. But the H-2 crashed unexpectedly, and very publicly, during a test flight September 4, 1918. The crash put an abrupt end to aerial forest fire patrol, and the proposed provincial air service in British Columbia. The 23-year old World War I pilot, home on leave at the time, escaped with his life. He declared, " away from the war zone has too many risks." Check out Guardians of the Sky to get the whole story.

Barely a year later, a private pilot took it upon himself to demonstrate how useful aerial patrols were in fire detection and suppression. As the Victoria British Columbia times reported,

For the first time in the history of this province an airplane has been successful in detecting a forest fire and reporting the location to the fire ranger.
See Private Pilot Scores A First.

Organized aerial patrols began in British Columbia, two years after the spectacular crash of the H-2, when the Canadian Air Board [The Canadian Air Board was established in 1919 to oversee all aspects of aviation in Canada. In 1920 the Air Board partnered with the Forestry sector to provide aerial patrols, timber surveys, maps and transport] set up an air base at Jericho Beach, Vancouver. The Royal Canadian Air Force continued aerial fire patrols throughout the 1920s.

First Aerial Forest Patrol flyer Curtiss HS-2L, Canada's First Bushplane, Flown by Stuart Graham

QUEBEC: FIRE DETECTION FIRSTS Quebec had been considering aerial fire patrols for some time. In 1919, the St. Maurice Protective Association acquired two war surplus flying boats for forest fire patrol.

Pilot Stuart Graham made headlines when he flew the HS-2L flying boat from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to Lac a La Tortue, Quebec on June 8, 1919 - proving that H-boats could be adapted to forestry uses. To celebrate, Graham dropped thousands of leaflets proclaiming, First Aerial Patrol.

Just two months later, on July 7, 1919, a Quebec air crew on patrol detected fire and reported it – a first for Canada. Aerial fire detection worked! Pioneer bush pilot Stuart Graham underlined the point, saying:

We have shown that fires can be sighted from the air and rapidly reported or extinguished in an efficient manner that never would have been achieved by any other means.
Check the Stuart Graham Papers to find out more about the life and times of Canada’s first bush pilot.

During the 1920s, the forest sector in Quebec continued to contract private air services to provide forest protection.

ONTARIO: PROVINCIAL AIR SERVICE PIONEER An Ontario aerial sketching crew detected wildfire by chance, while on a survey mission in 1921. As the story goes, in Bruce West's Wings over the Bush, "One said he believed that if they had some equipment, they could easily land and put it out. The other having agreed, they flew to forestry headquarters, picked up some men and tools, returned to the fire, and extinguished it."

It was extraordinary. The speed of the detection and suppression operation made a strong impact on the Ontario provincial government. In 1922, Ontario teamed up with the Canadian Air Board to provide flying fire patrols from bases at Parry Sound and Whitney. The results were impressive: 84 fires were spotted.

The following year Ontario contracted the Laurentide Air Service to patrol her forests for fire. The Laurentide patrols were so successful that the Ontario Provincial Air Service was established in 1924. The Air Service continues to provide aerial fire detection patrols up to the present day.

Ontario Fire Rangers landing at fire site De Havilland Moth, Ontario

CANADA: THE FLYING FIREMEN British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario were the first provinces to make forays into aerial fire detection. In Western Canada, however, the Air force took on the job. The Canadian Air Board worked closely with the Canadian Air Force (shortly reorganized as the Royal Canadian Air Force) and the Forestry sector to provide fire detection patrols. The Air Force flew fire detection patrols in Western Canada with striking success from 1921.

Avro seaplane, Manitoba

Air crews on patrol in Northern Manitoba spotted and reported wildfire 50 or 60 miles away, at an altitude of 3000 feet. Firefighters and equipment were flown to the fire site as soon as possible. For the first time, a fire ranger could have a bird’s-eye view of the fire – a big advantage in planning firefighting strategies. By 1928 fire detection aircraft in Manitoba regularly patrolled 40 million acres of forest. Check out the story of Sergeant J.M. Ready,an RCAF pilot based in Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba, who began a routine fire patrol that almost ended in disaster.

DH4 Patrolling for fires, c 1920s - 13,000 feet in open cockpit.

In the Alberta Rockies, aerial patrols faced special obstacles. Patrol planes could not depend on the innumerable waterways, found in other regions of Canada, to provide ready-made landing areas. Land-based planes needed airfields, but airfields were scarce – limiting the usefulness of aerial patrols in the mountains.

During the 1920s the pros and cons of aircraft patrols versus lookouts were weighed very carefully. By 1928 the Alberta Forest Service decided to construct an extensive system of lookouts. After that aerial patrols were used only as an aid to lookout detection.

Stanley Green boarding de Havilland 60-X  Moth,  Grand Prairie. Vickers vedette, Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan began aerial fire patrols in 1927. Before that ground patrols did not go north of the 56th parallel, but after 1927 aircraft could provide protection for the entire northern half of the province. The Prince Albert Daily Herald declared,

Like guardian eagles the planes of the Royal Canadian Air Force hover and soar over northern Saskatchewan’s forest lands, ever on the alert for the first signs of the forest’s greatest enemy, fire.

In British Columbia aerial fire patrols were so successful that the B.C. lumber industry strongly recommended continuing them. When a major fire at Buttle Lake was detected in 1922, fire pumps, hose, tools, tents, provisions and seven fire fighters were flown in to battle the fire, saving the men two full days of ground travel hauling heavy equipment. The costs of aerial fire operations were more than offset by the value of the timber saved.

AIRCRAFT DETECTION WAS UNSURPASSED, declared a forester in 1928, especially where populations are sparse, and methods of travel primitive. But in spite of success after success, the use of aircraft in fire detection faltered towards the end of the decade. Why?

Aircraft Maintenance

Maintaining the old war surplus aircraft,or purchasing a new Vickers Vedette, or a de Havilland Moth, cost money. So did the highly skilled mechanics, fitters, riggers and carpenters hired to keep them flying. But the Great Depression of the 1930s drastically cut the funds available for aircraft.

Extensive fire lookout systems were built in the 1920s. Lookouts provided excellent, though limited coverage. They were far less costly to maintain than aircraft during the hard times of the 1930s, and they were a tremendous improvement over the old system of ranger patrol.

During the depression and war years, aerial fire detection went into a partial eclipse. From 1930 to 1945 detection aircraft were used only when needed to supplement lookouts and ground patrols, if they were used at all.

The end of World War II provided a powerful thrust for aerial fire detection. Aircraft, trained pilots, and funds were available. Soon fire agencies were carefully balancing the pros and cons of aerial detection versus fire lookouts. By 1970 Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick phased out lookouts in favour of aerial patrols.

TODAY, close to a century after the first tentative fire patrols in surplus World War I planes, aerial fire detection is a key component of the overall detection strategy in Canada.

Photo Credit:
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre [De Havilland Moth; Ontario Fire Rangers landing at fire site; Aircraft Maintenance]
Victor Bishop Estate. Barnstorming to Bushflying by Peter Corley-Smith. Sono Nis Press, Winlaw, BC [H-2 Flying Boat]
NWT Archive. John Russell [Avro seaplane, Manitoba]
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development [DH4 Patrolling for fires, c 1920s; Aerial view of fire]
Saskatchewan Archives Board [Vickers vedette, Saskatchewan]
Canada Aviation Museum [First Aerial Forest Patrol flyer]
Geoffrey Bennett, painter. Robert Graham [Curtiss HS-2L, Canada’s First Bushplane, Flown by Stuart Graham]
Glenbow Museum [Stanley Green boarding de Havilland 60-X Moth. NA-2097-36]
Online Exhibits