How we fight wildfires

Alberta Wildfire has several ways to detect new wildfires and uses aircraft, special equipment and firefighters on the ground to fight them.

Report a wildfire: If you see a wildfire in a forested area call 310-FIRE (3473)


Wildfire suppression includes all activities to control and extinguish a wildfire after it’s detected.

Alberta Wildfire has 2 main objectives in wildfire suppression:

  • contain fire spread by 10 am the day after it is detected
  • start suppression activity before the fire grows larger than 2 hectares (4.9 acres) in size

Responding to wildfires

The Alberta Wildfire Coordination Centre, located in Edmonton, works with the 10 forest areas in the Forest Protection Area of Alberta to coordinate wildfire response.

The province has access to highly trained wildland firefighters and personnel. The province also leases or contracts resources, including:

  • airtankers
  • helicopters
  • patrol aircraft
  • heavy equipment
  • incident camps

These and other resources allow crews to get to a wildfire fast and to stay until it is extinguished.

Alberta has cooperative agreements with the other Canadian provinces, as well as with the United States, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. This allows Alberta to import and export resources as needed.

Priority criteria

The priority for the allocation and use of firefighting resources in the Forest Protection Area is based on the following criteria:

  1. Human life
  2. Communities
  3. Watershed and sensitive soils
  4. Natural resources
  5. Infrastructure

Air operations

Alberta Wildfire uses a combination of airtankers, helicopters and other air operations to monitor and fight wildfires.

For more information, see the Pilot Handbook.

  • Airtankers

    Airtankers are used for aerial firefighting, in which the objective is to keep a wildfire from spreading until ground forces are brought in to extinguish it. In Alberta, 5 different types of airtankers are used. The provincial fleet consists of 9 groups of one or more airtankers that can be deployed to fight fires anywhere in Alberta.

    To see the planes used to fight wildfires, see Alberta’s Airtanker Fleet.


    Each airtanker group has an assigned birddog aircraft either a Cessna Caravan C208B or Turbo Commander (TC-690) that carries an Air Attack Officer (AAO) and a birddog pilot. The birddog aircraft is usually the first to arrive at a fire. There, the AAO assesses the wildfire and formulates and executes an air attack plan to contain it. This information is also sent to the ground team and Forest Area Duty Officers.

    The birddog plane leads or directs the airtankers to their targets and tells them whether to drop fire retardant or water. The birddog plane is also equipped with a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera system. This camera allows the AAO to view and record the fire in all types of smoke conditions and to scan for hotspots.

    To ensure the safety of all aircraft in the vicinity, the birddog team also manages the airspace around a wildfire.

  • Airtanker coordination

    Air and ground safety takes priority over all other aspects of fire operations. The Air Attack Officer (AAO):

    • communicates with the incident commander on the ground
    • plans their operations in conjunction with the incident commander’s ground attack plan
    • deals with administrative and operational concerns at the airtanker base
    • acts as the liaison between the airtanker group and Alberta Wildfire personnel

    The Provincial Duty Officer and Provincial Aircraft Coordinator (PAC), both at the Alberta Wildfire Coordination Centre (AWCC) in Edmonton:

    • place the groups at strategic bases in Alberta
    • set the airtanker daily alert status as the fire danger warrants
    • coordinate resources to meet anticipated fire starts in any area of the province

    While assigned to an area, the airtanker groups are under the direction of the fire centre and managed in conjunction with the AWCC.

    Airtanker bases and deployment

    In Alberta, airtanker groups may be deployed to any one of the 13 airtanker bases (12 primary and one secondary) strategically situated around the province.

    Primary bases:

    • have a full complement of support staff and aircraft service facilities
    • are operated and maintained throughout the fire season

    Secondary bases:

    • are used as reloading stations
    • maintain a level of readiness dependent on current hazard or risk and active fire operations

    In addition to the permanent and secondary bases, airtankers can also operate from remote locations or from airstrips.

    Temporary mobile airtanker bases are used at the remote base. These units:

    • load the airtankers with fire retardant using mobile retardant mixing systems
    • have all the equipment needed to supply the basic needs of a regular airtanker base

    Remote bases are temporary, and once the operation has been completed, they are reclaimed to their original condition.

  • Helicopters

    Helicopters are widely used for aerial firefighting, as well as other forestry work such as mountain pine beetle operations. These aircraft are commonly used to transport personnel and equipment to and from forest fires. They can also drop water or retardants directly on a fire perimeter to control and aid in extinguishing the fire.

    Helicopters usually work with firefighters on the ground to increase their effectiveness and are also used to assist in projects associated with work in remote areas. Some of these projects are:

    • fire lookout servicing, including food and essentials Lookout Observers
    • medical evacuations
    • pre-positioning of firefighting crews
    • remote area clean-up and facility construction
    • servicing of remote infrastructure like weather stations

    Alberta Wildfire hires helicopters on an as-needed, casual basis or on contract during the fire season.

    See Commonly Used Rotor-Wing for the types of helicopters used in Alberta.

    For more information on rates and fees, see Casual Charter Helicopter Rates.

  • Fire retardants

    Airtankers and helicopters are used to drop foam and other fire retardants designed to reduce or inhibit combustion. Such agents are called retardants because they slow (or retard) a flame front’s rate of spread.

    A firefighting chemical mixture, when applied directly to a fire (usually at the base of the flames), is termed a suppressant because the attempt is made to suppress the flames, not just prevent their spread.

    The chemical mixture applied ahead of a wildfire front to reduce the rate of fire spread or intensity is termed a fire retardant. Fire retardants are generally broken down into 2 categories, short-term and long-term.

    Short-term fire retardants

    A short-term fire retardant is any substance whose effectiveness relies almost solely on its ability to retain moisture and absorb heat by cooling. Water alone, thickened by any means, or with reduced surface tension additives, is a short-term fire retardant.

    Additives to water permit a thicker layer of water to coat the fuel, thereby increasing the time and energy required to vaporize the water.

    Once the water evaporates, any retarding action ends. Short-term fire retardants are usually applied directly to the fire and could easily be termed suppressants. Foam is an example of a short-term retardant.

    Long-term fire retardants

    A long-term fire retardant contains a chemical, which alters the combustion process. The active ingredient, salt, permits pyrolysis at a lower temperature and promotes the formation of H2O, CO2 (water and carbon at once) and char, at the expense of flammable gases.

    Wood itself does not burn; rather, the gases that are produced through pyrolysis ignite when the flash point is reached, and provide the additional heat required to produce additional flammable gases.

Safety for drones and firefighting aircraft

  • Drones near wildfire

    During firefighting operations, the restricted airspace around a wildfire includes a radius of approximately 9.26 km (5 nautical miles) and up to an altitude of 3,000 feet above ground level.

    Flying a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over or near a wildfire in Alberta endangers firefighting personnel and may cause firefighting operations to stop. These delays can cause the wildfire to grow larger and more intense without aircraft providing support from above. Aircraft are used to drop fire retardant or water, monitor wildfires and provide information to firefighters on the ground.

    Before flying a drone or UAV, understand the rules that apply and follow them. Not doing so could result in fines of up to $25,000 and impact safe firefighting efforts.

    For more information, see:

  • Aircraft near water

    Depending on the location of a wildfire, firefighting aircraft such as airtankers and water bombers may need to use water from nearby lakes to help fight wildfires. Often, these aircraft arrive without advanced warning.

    If you are in the water and see an aircraft coming in to collect water, please move within 30 m from the shore so these aircraft can safely resume firefighting efforts. Aircraft are large and require space to collect water, without interference from people and boats. Help us by staying out of the way when aircraft are around.

    Poster: Please Give Way to These Aircraft


Personnel includes firefighters, warehouse staff, radio communications staff and other support positions.

  • Provincial Warehousing, Facilities and Technical Services

    Provincial Warehousing Facilities and Technical Services is comprised of units that coordinate as one to deliver core services to Alberta Wildfire.

    Warehouse services

    This area:

    • provides fire equipment management services, such as:
      • purchasing equipment and supplies required for fire suppression
      • inventory management
      • fleet coordination
    • provides equipment brokering services, such as:
      • moving fire equipment between field locations
      • warehousing and distribution for other divisions of the department
    • storage and distribution of uniforms for staff

    Mechanical services

    This area:

    • repairs, tests and certifies powered equipment
    • operates mobile equipment repair trailers during emergency situations
    • provides training to Alberta Wildfire staff on the use of powered equipment such as tower generators and fire pumps

    Refurbishing services

    This area:

    • refurbishes non-powered fire equipment and materials
    • sorts, cleans, repairs and repackages all equipment, tools, materials and supplies used in fire suppression activities
    • does research and development

    Facility services

    This area:

    • ensures all facilities are in working order, including:
      • fire camps
      • fire lookouts
      • airtanker bases
    • oversees all aspects of design, build and operations, including:
      • aircraft runways
      • jet fuel distribution systems
      • lookout towers
      • water and wastewater systems

    Radio technical services

    This area:

    • supports wildfire operations on the ground and as part of incident command
    • maintains radio infrastructure across Alberta
    • maintains and operates radio systems, such as:
      • Fireline
      • Firenet
    • designs and builds services in-house
    • supports aspects of the Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System

    Contact information

    The Warehouse and Service Centre is located at:

    10725 120 Avenue
    Edmonton, Alberta  T5G 0S8

    Phone: 780-427-6822
    Fax: 780-422-0174
    Email: [email protected]

  • Wildfire crews

    Alberta Wildfire uses the following wildfire crews:

    • Helitack Crew (HAC)
    • Unit Crew (UNIT)
    • Firetack Crew (FTAC)

    For more information on seasonal job opportunities to support the management of forest and wildfire resources, see Alberta Wildfire recruitment.

  • Incident Command System (ICS)

    The Incident Command System (ICS) is the combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure, designed to aid in the management of resources at one or multiple wildfire incidents.

    For more information, see the Incident Command System flowchart.


Alberta Wildfire has a mandate to report all fires within 5 minutes of detection to the nearest fire centre.

We have a variety of ways to identify new wildfire starts, such as:

  • 310-FIRE public reporting
  • aerial patrols with airplanes and helicopters
  • fire lookouts
  • ground patrols
  • cooperation of industries such as oil and gas, forestry and aviation
  • scans, sensors and satellites

We use both traditional and new technology to detect wildfires. However, one of the most effective is when members of the public report a wildfire by calling 310-FIRE.

  • Fire lookouts

    Lookouts are located where visibility is favourable to detect and report fires. The lookouts consist of one or 2-story alpine cabins (located on top of a mountain) or steel towers located on the highest ground throughout the boreal forest. Alberta has 100 active lookout sites within the Forest Protection Area. They are used to detect fire starts throughout the summer.

    Lookout observers, working for a period of 30 to 180 days depending on their work location and the season’s fire danger, discover approximately 30% of fires annually. They are responsible for reporting wildfire activity within 5 minutes of detection. Each lookout is responsible for an area of 5,027 square kilometres. For more information about lookout observers, see Alberta Wildfire recruitment.

    Fire lookout locations in Alberta

    Rules to follow at a lookout site

    • Lookout observers play a very important role in early fire detection. It is imperative that they are not distracted from doing this duty.
    • Lookout dwellings are for private, not public, use. Things like communications, water, food, or shelter will not be provided to the public. The dwelling at the lookout site is the observer's residence. Please do not expect a tour of the cabin.
    • For safety reasons, the public is forbidden to climb the lookout tower. Lookout staff receive special training on fall protection systems required to climb the towers.
    • Be careful not to adjust, use or disturb any equipment on site. Weather instruments are critical to forest protection operations. They help decide when and how many firefighters, helicopters and other resources are required.
  • Aerial detection

    Aerial patrols supplement fire lookouts by covering gaps within the detection network and work with lookouts to monitor areas of concern.

    Helicopters carrying wildland firefighters patrol during periods of high fire danger and can also be used to detect and quickly respond to wildfires.

    Airplanes with aerial observers and helicopters with firefighters, also called loaded patrols, provide aerial detection during periods of increased fire danger and over known gaps in the fixed detection system.

    Air patrols detect holdover lightning fires from recent storms and monitor land-clearing activities in settlement areas. Loaded patrols are flown during higher hazard periods to achieve prompt, effective initial attack when fire is detected.

  • Infrared scanning

    During the early spring, various industries use infrared scanning to scan winter burning projects such as brush piles, power and pipeline construction, as well as site clearings. The infrared scans detect holdover heat sources that have the potential to cause fires.

    Alberta Wildfire also uses various infrared technologies:

    • as a mapping tool to obtain the boundaries of ongoing fires
    • to determine the most effective location for air tanker drops on fires
    • to spot-check winter burning projects
  • Research

    Alberta Wildfire will continue to operate a multi-method detection network to detect and report wildfires in a variety of landscapes and conditions. It is an ongoing practice within the detection unit to investigate alternative detection methods and continually evaluate the application and use of emerging technology.

  • Safety

    Employee safety is Alberta Wildfire’s first priority. Each employee is responsible for his or her own safety and for the safety of others. The detection unit is always looking for new ways to ensure workers’ safety and establish more secure work sites.

    All fire operations and activities reflect this commitment to employee safety. It is underlined by the department’s health and safety management system, established per industry and government standards.


Wildfire employment

For questions about Alberta Wildfire job positions:

Phone: 780-427-6807
Fax: 780-415-1509
Email: [email protected]

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