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Vancouver Island helicopter company sends 10 choppers to battle B.C. blazes

Support staff of over 100 follow helicopters around the province
One of VIH Helicopters Kamov KA32 choppers fights fires using the bucket in the foreground. (Mario Vaillancourt photo/ VIH Helicopters)

During Jen Norie’s nine years as general manager of VIH Helicopters, the company has never been as busy as it has during the 2021 wildfire season.

“It’s been unreal,” she said.

In an average summer, two-or-three of the aviation organization’s heavy class helicopters have been dispatched to fight fires, but because of the intensity of the wildfire season in B.C. this year, the province has hired the company’s entire fleet – even its small support helicopters.

“A lot of helicopter operators have gone elsewhere like California, or Australia to fight fires,” Norie said.

“They haven’t left machines in Canada because there hasn’t really been a lot of work, so now that there’s such an intense fire year, there’s probably a shortage of assets, and that’s why the province is hiring everything they can find.”

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VIH employees at the head office in Victoria, and the hanger at the Campbell River airport, have been working very hard to support the helicopters in the field.

More than 100 employees are required to keep the squadron operating smoothly, with many following the choppers from fire-to-fire across the province too.

Each aircraft is sent out with fuel trucks, pickup trucks, service vans, buckets and lines, and other spare parts.

“The service vans and fuel trucks essentially follow the helicopters around and remain at the same location as the helicopters to provide maintenance and fuel, with crews working two weeks on, two weeks off,” Norie explained.

The pilots are flying eight hours per day, and maintenance engineers work early morning or late evening shifts to keep the craft safely in the air during daylight hours.

Norie praised BC Wildfire Service, noting they “do a great job with what they have to work with, and are very organized.” She said having more resources — helicopters, crew, and firefighters — would really help to truly get ahead of the wildfire situation.

With so many fires burning there is only so much to go around.

The ability to get as much water onto a fire as quickly as possible is a critical component in any firefight, and VIH Helicopters has successfully deployed advanced buckets for their Sikorsky S61 and Kamov KA-32 helicopters that allow filling at a rate of over 2,000 to 2,200 gallons-per-minute in as little as 20 inches of water, in less than 20 seconds.

“This allows VIH’s aircraft to draw from water sources in close proximity to the intended target, significantly reducing flight time while achieving more water drops in a much shorter amount of time,” Norie said.

The company’s GM noted its pleasure at being able to help its provincial neighbours.

“The courage, bravery and commitment of everyone involved in fighting wildfires is commendable, and we are very proud to be a part of those efforts,” she said.

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