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Inside Fort McMurray: Helicopter crews battle wildfires to save the city’s infrastructure

Fort McMurray Fire

Inside Fort McMurray: Helicopter crews battle wildfires from the sky

Helicopter crews get an overview of destruction as they rain down water with precision passes to snuff out threats to the city's critical infrastructure, Carrie Tait and Justin Giovannetti report from Fort McMurray, Alta.

Ken Saumure, a pilot with Phoenix Heli-Flight, fills a bucket with water to douse a hotspot near the company's hangers and fuel tanks.

Ken Saumure, a pilot with Phoenix Heli-Flight, fills a bucket with water to douse a hotspot near the company’s hangers and fuel tanks.

Carrie Tait/The Globe and Mail

Ken Saumure, flying an AS-350 helicopter, dips a red bucket into a pond near Fort McMurray's airport at 8:55 a.m. Sunday. He flies north and dumps the 600 litres of water on smouldering ground, only 200 metres from Phoenix Heli-Flight's two hangars, fuel tanks and his fellow crew members. Two minutes later, he's back, scooping up more water.

It takes thousands of misses to learn how to drop water exactly on the trees you're aiming for. Mr. Saumure is hovering over the rising smoke and adjusting for the 20-knot winds. When everything feels right, he jabs the button on his cyclic stick.

Hundreds of litres whoosh down. He knows he hit his mark when the trees he's eyeing buckle sideways.

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"This is Fort Knox," Mr. Saumure says. "We have to defend this place with all we have."

Ken Saumure, a pilot with Phoenix Heli-Flight stands beside a helicopter after dousing a hotspot near the facility in Fort McMurray.

Ken Saumure, a pilot with Phoenix Heli-Flight, stands beside a helicopter after dousing a hotspot near the facility in Fort McMurray.

Carrie Tait/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Saumure does 20 laps to the pond before the hotspot is snuffed out. The wildfire consuming Fort McMurray has already threatened Phoenix's operations, coming within 10 metres of one of its fuel tanks and six metal containers holding expensive helicopter parts last week. The fire was about 50 metres away from one of Phoenix's white hangars before the crew extinguished it, but not before it toasted two trucks and started to burn fuel barrels containing dregs.

This fire first reached Fort McMurray last Tuesday and has since merged with two other fires and is on the verge of running over two more. It creates its own weather and its lightning has sparked more burns. Fifteen helicopters, 14 air tankers, 88 pieces of equipment and about 500 firefighters are fighting the fire that has flamed through 161,000 hectares and growing. At 200 kilometres per hour, it would take 20 minutes to fly from one edge of the fire to another.

Firefighters are focusing on Fort McMurray's critical infrastructure. The hospital is intact but smoky; most of downtown has survived.

About 1,600 structures burned down as of last Wednesday and the government has not provided an update since. The fire torched buildings in nearby Anzac, a hamlet which earlier last week served as one of Fort McMurray's evacuation centres.

The pressure on evacuees is further complicating the firefighting effort.

Two trucks burned out on Phoenix Heli-Flight's complex in Fort McMurray.

Two trucks burned out on Phoenix Heli-Flight’s complex in Fort McMurray.

Carrie Tait/The Globe and Mail

On Saturday, a person sneaked into Prairie Creek, a neighbourhood spared from the flames, and lit a home on fire. The house, firefighters said, is about a block from the forest.

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The fire spread to neighbouring houses and emergency crews bulldozed one property to prevent the fire from growing. The wind was calm when the person started the fire. The RCMP, responsible for providing security in Fort McMurray, did not respond to questions from The Globe and Mail about the incidents.

Controlling and extinguishing the fires depends largely on weather.

Phoenix Heli-Flight stages out of a work camp in Mariana Lake, south of Fort McMurray. Five helicopters take off around 8 a.m. Sunday, a solid start given the smoke kept the crew grounded until about 1 p.m. Saturday.

From the sky, the first signs of the raging wildfire are three white shafts of smoke rising south of the Athabasca River. They are small spot fires, burning southwest of Fort McMurray and far from fire crews. Around them are hectares of blackened trees and ashen ground.

An ariel shot of part of the forest consumed by the Fort McMurray fire.

An ariel shot of part of the forest consumed by the Fort McMurray fire.

Carrie Tait/The Globe and Mail

Paul Spring and Andrea Montgomery Spring own Phoenix and take an EC-120 light helicopter to Fort McMurray Sunday from Mariana Lake. Mr. Spring flies over a wall of white smoke burning toward the south. The smell of burning timber enters the cockpit. It is drizzling, but the rain lasts less than half an hour.

Mr. Spring lowers a yellow shield over his eyes when he flies into the zone of restricted airspace around the wildfires. The fires have disoriented the birds, increasing the risk of hitting one, he says. He wears a red helmet.

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Roughly 80,000 people have been evacuated from in and around Fort McMurray since last Tuesday. Three hundred people from Fort McKay, a community to the north of Fort McMurray, have been evacuated to Edmonton by air and ground because of heavy smoke.

In the nearly deserted Fort McMurray, cars and trucks are parked on neat cul de sacs as the sun shines on bright grass. There is little hint of the devastation in Thickwood as the helicopter skirts the northern neighbourhood.

Only blocks to the north, bulldozers have torn a deep gash between the city and the boreal forest that surrounds it. It is all part of an effort to control the flames. While the fires burn furiously to the southeast, there are few burns left in the city.

Fort McMurray Golf Club's clubhouse is gone, some of the carts will end up in the junkyard and the trees there are nothing more than black sticks reaching toward the sky. The fairways and greens, however, remain lush, with their checkered patterns clear from above.

First images emerge from devastated Beacon Hill area of Fort McMurray Photos inside the Fort McMurray neighbourhood destroyed by wildfires that rolled through the city earlier this week.

Entire neighbourhoods are missing south of downtown. Broken foundations on winding streets are all that is left of some homes. Wrecked swing sets stand in what were once backyards, the metal shells of hefty appliances stand in fields of cracked concrete and steel.

All this happened while ice floes still remain on the Athabasca River.

Phoenix has nine helicopters fighting the fire, with another serving as a medivac helicopter. They have a brand new bird sitting in their maintenance hangar, waiting for a new instrument panel so it can join the battle.

With the power lines burnt between the helicopter facility and town, the Phoenix crew last week grabbed – with retroactive permission – generators from an industrial site near their base, rigging them through the bathroom venting so they did not have to cut holes in the hangars. They've also brought in eight brown camp trailers to house crews closer to the airfield.

"You gotta think long-term," Mr. Spring says. "This could be until fall."

The growing fire – and the smouldering underground fires like the one Mr. Saumure eliminated Sunday – do not rattle Phoenix's team.

"We're focused. It is not a rush," says Mr. Saumure, who has 30 years of experience but is so new to Phoenix that his name isn't on his blue flight suit. "We sort of have to knock it down a notch so we don't make any mistakes."

Helicopter flyover shows scale of destruction in Fort McMurray

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