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.

Observers, Ontario, 1924. The observer's job was to detect wildfire, observe it closely, and report to headquarters. A good observer, said an Ontario Provincial Air Service official, was 'someone who could tell the truth, had good eyesight, could read a map, and was not subject to air sickness."  Observer and pilot wearing windproof flying gear, essential for open cockpit flying, Alberta, 1922.

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.

Curtiss HS-2L flying boat. Note the observer in the open cockpit at the front end of the aircraft.
  • Detection. The observer sat in the nose of the flying boat, an ideal position to spot fire. When he detected a smoke, he passed a note to the pilot, or pointed. The roar of the engine made normal conversation impossible.
  • Information. The pilot flew to the spot and circled over the fire, while the observer plotted the location on a map. He studied the fire carefully, noting fire location, size, and rate of spread; timber type; topography; access routes; available water; and the equipment and number of fire fighters required. Using a portable phone
  • Communication. Once the observer located the fire and sized it up, he had to get the information to headquarters as fast as possible. There were several options:
  • Fly back to base to report the fire in person.
  • Drop the information in a message bag over forestry headquarters.
  • Relay the message from a telephone or telegraph station, (if the pilot could readily locate a nearby lake to land on).
  • Use a portable phone, a time-consuming task. First, the pilot located a suitable lake to land on, close to a dispatchers line Then the observer headed out on foot to the line. He threw a phone wire over the line to make contact, shouted into the phone until someone heard him – and reported the fire.


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.

  • Light, high-wing aircraft, or helicopters are sent out on planned fire detection patrols. Helicopters frequently fly loaded fire patrols, carrying firefighters and equipment.
  • Patrols are based on input from weather stations,lightning locators, fire behaviour prediction systems, fire lookouts, and public reports. The information is tracked and analyzed with the aid of computer technology.
  • During peak fire periods, an observer may fly along with the pilot.
  • Once a smoke is detected, the pilot flies in close to the fire site, noting precisely the location, size, access and pumping distance from fire to water.

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.

Photo Credit:
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre [Using a Portable Phone; Observers, Ontario, 1924]
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development [Observer and pilot wearing windproof flying gear, Alberta, 1922]
Red Lake Museum [HS-2L flying boat]
Online Exhibits