Tag Archives: Dryden-18

Late July timeline

July 9, 1974

The count of firefighters had risen to 350. A ray of hope momentarily appeared when some rain fell in the Vermilion Bay area, allowing the 1,200 resident and tourists to return.

Air attack aircraft from B.C., Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Québec were on-scene and extremely busy.

The U.S.F.S. infra-red sensing aircraft remained on-site to provide mapping detail through the smoke.

July 11

  • Premier Bill Davis and Natural Resources Minister Leo Bernier toured the fire .
  • 920 persons, including 110 unit crews, 310 EFF, 56 support staff were now in the Region.
  • 129 Ontario Provincial Police officers were scattered throughout the region.

July 25

  • A total of 14 airtankers were working the fire.
  • 26 helicopters were doing the down and dirty work.

August 7

A reporter was flown out to a line camp where a Crew Leader from back east was supervising his 4-man crew and 25 native firefighters. During an interview, the Crew Leader states, “No reasons for me to sleep out here on the ground, is there?” Once that ended up in print, it was the end of his resort vacation at Pine Beach.

More fire than we bargained for

The volatility of the aerial ignition chemicals we were handling shouldn’t be underestimated. Consequently, we tried to take what we thought was great care with the details:

  • we worked in a separate area on the flight line when we were handling the balls and the chemical;
  • anti-freeze and the final product were never carried together until loaded on board;
  • the balls were carried on board GODW in metal garbage cans with the lids secured;
  • we swept out the aircraft at the end of a run to get rid of any stray potassium that may have gotten caught up in the slipstream.

For the most part, our care and caution was rewarded without incident. However…

On one occasion, Sonny was standing beside GODW while loading a batch of green garbage bags filled with ping-pong balls into metal garbage cans. He picked up a bag and it immediately burst into flames while he was still holding on to it. When Sonny proceeded to depart the area in a hasty feets don’t fail me now manner, the flaming bag was deposited next to a drum of turbo fuel.

I would have been right behind him, but discretion being the better part of valour, instead I reached into GODW, grabbed the fire extinguisher and used it to good purpose. Why the spontaneous combustion occurred was anyone’s guess, but obviously our careful handling of the two chemicals was brought into question. No doubt some anti-freeze had gotten into the mix somewhere towards the end of the line.

The very next day all of the helipads on the base camp flight line were equipped with large extinguishers. No further incidents occurred.

We need more fire!

Link to Part 1 – Burning out

Burnout results

After some experimenting with the OAID machine and after obtaining some success igniting small test acreages, demand for existing stocks of the chemical and the ping-pong balls we needed was dwindling fast. We required ping-pong balls and potassium permanganate in massive quantities, much beyond the capabilities of the commercial supplier who couldn’t keep up with demand. To tackle aerial ignition on the scale that was required, a huge manufacturing capability was needed to supply the materials in their final form.

Consequently, the Ministry began scouting around for a building to contain manufacturing operations. The only viable location was the Dryden arena, an old wooden building. Certainly, the timber in the building was extremely dry because of its age, and this was a concern due to the fire hazard of the potassium. Approval was quickly obtained, workers were hired, chemical was delivered, and ping pong ball halves were assembled with the required amount of chemical. Throughout it all, the arena remained standing.

Sonny, with fingernails finally free of potassium, and a pilot clocking hectic hours

Sonny, with fingernails finally free of potassium, and a pilot clocking hectic hours

The ping-pong balls arrived at the base camp in huge green garbage bags. The bags were transferred to metal garbage cans to contain the balls and then loaded into the back of the helicopter. Our thinking was that the metal cans would prevent the balls from contacting the anti-freeze floating around in the slipstream.

During the ignition operation the Burn Boss sat in the front. Sonny Lengyl was the OAID operator in the back of the helicopter. When the hopper was reloaded with balls there was all kinds of loose potassium floating around. Anti-freeze flowed freely in the slipstream and got all over the hands of the operator. When the anti-freeze got under Sonny’s fingers it mixed with potassium permanganate. The smell of smoke wound its way into the front of the helicopter. I thought we were on fire, but it was only Sonny. I landed, he managed to get his fingers under control and we carried on with the burn.

It all seemed like good fun at the time.

Cessna 185 write-off

In 1974 this brand-new Cessna 185 owned by Slate Falls Airways of Sioux Lookout ran out of lake during a landing while working Dryden-18, 10 miles southwest of Vermilion Bay.

The 22 year old pilot managed to walk away–so to speak–with a broken foot.

David Schindler, then of the Federal Fisheries Research Board and the head of the Experimental Lakes Hayes Lake research facility, escaped with facial lacerations. Schindler, who was also a diver, was being flown to the lake to help retrieve a water bucket lost by a helicopter.

Photo taken from Lambair's Alouette II C-FYDO

Photo taken from Lambair's Alouette II C-FYDO

I think we were fortunate that this was the only accident to occur during the entire length of Dryden-16 and Dryden-18. Even better, no one was seriously hurt in the Cessna.

Approximately 35 helicopters consisting of the Bell 47, 206, 204, 212, Hughes 500, S-55, Alouette II, Gazelle and perhaps some I’ve forgotten were all thrown into the mix. Not to be outdone, the helicopters shared airspace with a wide variety of land-based air tankers. The DC-6, B-26 and Tracker and their air attack aircraft, as well as CL-215s, Cansos, Twin Otters and quite a few single-engine aircraft were all flying circuits on various locations around Dryden-18.

As one can imagine with the huge mix of aircraft over the fire, the availability of radio frequencies and aircraft separation became somewhat of an issue. The fire management team would come up with a thoughtful solution during their overnight meetings. Frequencies would be mixed, matched and assigned to the various air tanker groups for the next day’s operation.

Unfortunately, no one told the helicopter pilots. Consequently we’d all be out stumbling around trying to get someone on the ground or in the air tanker operation to acknowledge our presence. This went on for a couple of days until someone wised up and eventually notes would get left on our seats overnight with the new frequency assignments.

Problem solved.

Remember, all this was in 1974, before the advent of many of the aircraft controls that came about in the future as a result of the experiences gleaned from the 1974 fire season.

Burning out

Link to Part 2 – We need more fire!

I did a lot of aerial ignition flying on Dryden-18. Much of it was successful. Some of it wasn’t. Large burnouts the likes of which we were doing were unheard of in previous years. The helicopter allowed for huge acreages to be ignited such that the scope and scale of the burnout operation was completely new to all of us. It turned out to be a learning experience for everyone.

OAID machine

OAID machine

Today a drip torch slung under the helicopter is used in aerial ignition operations. It wasn’t always so. In the 70s and into the 80s we used the specialized piece of equipment pictured at right. It was called the OAID or Ontario Aerial Ignition Device. To get it to do its job, half of a ping-pong ball was filled with potassium permanganate and then glued to the other half. Then,

  • the filled balls were fed into a hopper and driven down to the needles;
  • the needles punctured the balls and injected anti-freeze ;
  • the balls were ejected from the machine and fell to the ground, where they ignited as a consequence of the chemical reaction–if everything went as planned;
  • depending on the concentration of anti-freeze, the length of time from injection to ignition could be varied to some extent;
  • end results varied depending on the moisture levels in the fuel and air humidity.

Wouldn’t you say that the flying drip torch is a definite improvement over all of that?

The machine worked great in theory, but the bugs were still being worked out of the system when we went to use it. The machine was subject to jamming, which led to potassium and anti-freeze getting caught up in the injectors with the possibility of igniting on-board the helicopter. The operator kept a fire extinguisher nearby for just such an event. In case that didn’t work, plan B was to cut the straps holding the machine and kick it out the door. Neither Plan A nor Plan B was required.

The results of a good day using the OAID machine

Successful results after a good day with the OAID machine.

When the equipment worked, it worked very well. Fuel conditions had to be right, however. If they weren’t, you could end up with hundreds of small fires in the burnout area, which then had to be put out while we waited for the right fuel conditions to occur. We got that figured out and prior to proceeding with the large burns we did test burns in small areas.

Blowdown and prolonged drought also helped to contribute to some of the aerial ignition failures. However, those weren’t the biggest problems we faced when trying to do burnout operations.

Link to Part 2 – We need more fire!