Smoke on the Water

Written by Walt Rhodes
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Walt RhodesAn early spring can be a mixed blessing. After enduring winter, Canadians welcome the warm temperatures and sunny skies of an early spring. But an early spring without much moisture can mean forest fires.

We pulled out of Prince Albert, SK, just in time. Four days ago we continued transects northward towards La Ronge, SK. Pairs of scaup were seen dotting boreal wetlands. Once into La Ronge we noticed a number of fire bomber planes departing the airport to the south. Back at the hotel that evening we learned there was a fire that had shut down the Prince Albert airport due to smoke. The fire bombers were still running the next day and reports trickled in of other fires scattered across the North. Record warm temperatures and windy conditions were adding further fuel to the fires. We worked another day out of La Ronge before departing to Fort McMurray, AB.

The lines toward Fort McMurray, a former trading post situated at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers best known now as the jumping off point for the oil sands region, begin to take us over numerous lakes and ponds of various sizes, which are good breeding habitats but also staging points if habitats are frozen to the north. Judging by the numerous pairs of scaup as well as common mergansers, buffleheads and mallards that we’re seeing, as opposed to flocks, the timing of the survey looks excellent. If spring was late, we would normally be observing flocks of birds. We even encountered our first pairs of white-winged and surf scoters near Buffalo Narrows, SK.

A persistent trough of low pressure has been hanging over northern Alberta and Saskatchewan for the last several days. Forecast embedded thunderstorms have only added to the mix. Flying in a region without weather radar commonly seen in more populated areas makes flight planning and “go no-go” decisions tricky. The weather has been holding, but flying conditions have been bumpy as wind coming over the rocky terrain gets disturbed. Here’s an indication of how bumpy it’s been: Imagine yourself in a dining room chair whose padding should have been replaced 20 years ago, and then imagine you’re a tennis shoe in a dryer on low heat and tumble.

Scheduled to fly from Alberta all the way across Saskatchewan to Manitoba, we needed good weather yesterday. An ominous sign I should have noticed first thing in the morning was the engine oil I dripped on my shirt, producing a lifetime stain. Once on the transect heading east, Sarah says she smells smoke. Being from northern Maine, she said it smelled like the comforting aroma of a wood stove, not like something was smoldering in the plane. Soon the horizon began to look hazy, like back East haze from humidity. A few miles more and there was the smoke, and then fire right on the transect. We made it through all of that okay, and landed uneventfully for fuel in Lynn Lake, MB, where it was a chilly 39 degrees. When we were back on transect, headed home and nearing the end of the final line before our flight back to Fort McMurray, the familiar hum in my headset vanished and the low voltage light illuminated. Our alternator decided to take a vacation.

When this happens, the first steps are to lower the gear, get some altitude and shut down non-essential equipment to conserve battery power. Then you try to bring the alternator back online, which didn’t happen for us. Since we were 160 miles from nowhere and couldn’t contact Winnipeg Flight Center, we contacted an overhead and higher plane who relayed to Winnipeg that everything was okay but since we were flying with our gear down we would be late on our flight plan and may not have a radio to communicate with the tower once back to Fort McMurray. We made it back fine, and landed right before the edge of a thunderstorm enveloped the airport. McMurray Aviation replaced our alternator overnight but the weather today is low ceilings and rain. Same forecasted for tomorrow.

A fire bomber from La Ronge, SK, taxing to position for takeoff to fight fire near the Prince Albert airport.  (Photo by S. Folsom)

A fire bomber from La Ronge, SK, taxing to position for takeoff to fight fire near the Prince Albert airport. Photo by S. Folsom, USFWS

The record warm temperatures so far lead to a lot of bugs on the windshield and plane.  (Photo by S. Folsom)

The record warm temperatures so far lead to a lot of bugs on the windshield and plane. Photo by S. Folsom, USFWS

These aren’t the Smoky Mountains on the TN-NC border in the States but rather smoke from a forest fire in Stratum 21 lying over the hills of north-central Saskatchewan.  (Photo by W. Rhodes, USFWS)

These aren’t the Smoky Mountains on the TN-NC border in the States but rather smoke from a forest fire in Stratum 21 lying over the hills of north-central Saskatchewan. Photo by W. Rhodes, USFWS

A forest fire lies across Transect 4 in Stratum 21.  (Photo by W. Rhodes, USFWS)

A forest fire lies across Transect 4 in Stratum 21. Photo by W. Rhodes, USFWS