Crop-dusting pilots in Saskatchewan could soon be called to battle grass fires in the province, as the Single Engine Aircraft Tanker (SEAT) program nears full operation.
Transport Canada has approved seven companies to fight grass fires, and another seven are undergoing the training process.
No pilots had been called into duty yet as of the afternoon of June 1.
“Technically, we can do that now,” said Duane McKay, Saskatchewan’s commissioner of emergency management and fire safety.
“But what we want to do is ensure the proper protocols are in place to ensure the safety of both the fire people on the ground, as well as the pilots.”
About 26 pilots have been trained so far with further sessions planned across the province.
“Having the water onboard and using that to fight fire, it’s a natural transition,” McKay said.
Plane operators can quickly drain any chemical from a standard 1,900-litre tank, clean it and be able to respond within minutes of receiving a call for assistance.
“In the ag industry, we’re already almost running at like NASCAR (speed). We land, we load, we go and we do this all day long,” said Travis Karle, owner and chief pilot of Accumark Airspray.
Karle has been flying since 1998 and crop-dusting for the past 11 years.
“I’ve seen combines catch on fire right beside me where I’m spraying a field,” Karle said.
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On Friday, provincial officials gave a presentation to the Nipawin Fire Department, stressing the importance of communication between ground crews and aerial firefighters.
Once fully integrated, members of the fire department and pilots will share a radio frequency for grass fire response.
Currently, many pilots have Bluetooth connections in their helmets, though not all regions have full cell service.
The SEAT program will service the central and south portions of Saskatchewan, while provincial crews will continue fighting forest fires in northern Saskatchewan.
The program is scheduled to be fully operational by mid-summer.