Super scoopers: Canadian firefighting planes stationed in Lewistown

Managing Editor

A CL-215T firefighting plane is refueled Thursday afternoon after returning from the Crying Fire north of Winnett.

Photo by Deb Hill

Imagine an immense float plane skimming across the surface of a lake at 90 miles an hour, scooping thousands of gallons of water into giant holding tanks, then flying off to dump that water on a nearby fire. This is no fantasy – two of the Canadair CL-215T firefighting amphibious aircraft are now stationed at the Lewistown airport, helping fight Central Montana wildfires.

A total of four of the specialized planes are on loan from the Saskatchewan government – two others are stationed in Kalispell. This week’s fire activity had all four planes flying out of Lewistown and using Fort Peck as a water source to help fight the Crying Fire north of Winnett.

“We arrived in Lewistown Monday night,” said Leon Grundner, air attack officer for the Lewistown-based crew. “We’ll be waiting at the airport on call until they tell us we are no longer needed.”

Grundner said each team of planes includes two of the CL-215s and a “bird dog” plane to help guide the attack, with a two-person team in each plane.

“These planes were built specifically for this,” Grundner said. “They each hold 12,000 gallons of water, as well as thousands of gallons of foam.”

Grundner said pilots for the aircraft must have prior experience with float plans, and then receive specific training on the Cl-215 planes. Each 45,000-pound plane has two water tanks and a foam tank, and the doors to each tank open independently, so foam can be mixed with the water if needed. To fill the tanks requires a water source at least two miles long and 60 feet deep, such as Fort Peck reservoir.

“When we fly over the water source, there’s a siren to warn people on the lake,” he said. “We use the siren to clear the lake before the planes come in, but if there’s a conflict we can abort the run.”

Pilot Ross Stewart said the planes hold 12,000 pounds of water. Once over the fire, the doors on the plane’s water tanks open and water plummets out, hitting a circle on the ground of about 120 feet in diameter.

“They don’t make these planes any more,” Stewart said. “They only made a few hundred of the 215Ts and there are only about 200 left operating.”

The production facility for the planes was in Montreal. Stewart’s plane is a 1986 model, although it was rebuilt a few years ago.

“These were purpose-built for fighting fires,” he said. “They cost $36-$40 million apiece.”

Mutual aide compact means extra resources

According to Kevin Lee, state liaison from Montana’s Department of Natural Resource Conservation, said the state requested extra help from Saskatchewan because of the forecast for a bad fire season.

“We have a mutual aid compact, the Northwest Compact, between northwestern states and some of the provinces,” Lee said. “They’re not having a bad fire season up in Saskatchewan so the state requested assistance when the fire season started to amp up. Federal resources are allocated to federal priorities; using the Compact we can get resources we can allocate to state priorities.”

Lee explained the DNRC is responsible to protect private and state lands, in this case within the Northeast Lane Office boundaries. The Canadian aircraft stationed at Lewistown can be used from here to Miles City and even south of Billings, Lee said.

“These are not approved to be used on federal land,” he added. “We allocate them to where they are close to dip sites, such as Fort Peck or Yellowtail. They can be shared with other land offices, too.”

This is only the second or third time the planes have been used in Montana, Lee said.

“The City has been helping to get the hydrant at the airport set up with a meter so we can fill the tanks with City water for local fires, if we need to,” he explained, adding “Everyone has been extremely helpful, including the City water department and Fire Chief Keith Kucera.”

The CL-215 pilots and crew are staying at the Yogo in while stationed in Lewistown, and Airport Manager Jerry Moline has arranged office space for them in the airport terminal. The planes, when not flying, are parked in front of the old hangar just outside the terminal building.






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