Birtle crop-dusters add firefighting to their profile

First-of-its-kind multi-purpose plane that can battle blazes ready for take off

This crop-duster is a dual-purpose firefighting machine.

A Birtle-area crop-duster is getting into the firefighting business.

Randy and Janet Sandstrom have expanded their crop-dusting business to now offer aerial firefighting assistance to local fire departments.

They are the proud owners of a serial No. 1 from Thrush Aircraft, a single cockpit plane with a switchback fire gate, the first-of-its-kind, multi-purpose aircraft capable of assisting with aerial firefighting.

“We have seen what aircraft can do for assisting firefighters,” said Sandstrom, chief pilot and operations manager of Prairie Dusters.

Sandstrom, who splits his time between Canada in the summer months and Australia in the winter, has seen first hand the value and effectiveness of using ag planes in fire suppression, which is common practice in Australia.

The Sandstroms are continually researching innovative ways they can better serve their clients, and landed on the cutting edge of aircraft technology with the newest addition to their fleet. It is a multi-purpose aircraft which allows them to transition from flying spray runs, to fighting fires, almost immediately.

Following the plane since 2015, when it was in the early testing stages, they agreed to purchase the first of its kind as soon as it passed all of the testing standards, which were complete in February 2019. Shortly after, they brought their new bird home to the nest.

Sandstrom said that fire drops are rated as a Level 1 through 5 with 1 being a misting of water, and 5 being a drop level high enough to attack a serious forest fire like the California wildfires or the Fort McMurray blaze. Their newest addition can reach a Level 6 drop, making it a very effective bomber.

“We have the ability to add foam, retardants, wetting agents, and can do multiple drops on the same load,” Sandstrom said. “We can respond to any type of incident, rural or residential. We can target a single house inside a block in a direct attack, or do a cooling run over a bigger area to prevent a spread. Because of the speed, agility and power of this aircraft, we can get into areas and attack fires that large water bombers could never do. This plane was designed as a quick strike force fire bomber. It’s the jet fighter of the world with rapid precision strikes.”

The belly of the plane has doors that open to deliver a payload of fire retardant to help with fire suppression. photo: Thrush Aircraft

He added the planes are here working all summer long spraying crops, piloted by some very experienced people. With a quick phone call the local department can have some very effective planes attacking a fire before it gets out of control.

“As more of the local departments see these aircraft in action, the more accepted and standard the use of the aircraft will become,” he said. “The future of fire protection should be to use all the tools available. Aircraft are one of those tools.”

The Sandstroms are working with local councils to have agreements put in place before a fire breaks out and the need for the aircraft arises.

“We are a quick response attack force once properly set up,” said Sandstrom. “However, this is a proactive approach to handling a crisis, this can’t be done overnight.”

Prairie View municipality and Birtle fire department are one of the municipalities and volunteer fire departments that sees the value in such a service, and have trained with Sandstrom on the use of aerial firefighting as an aid to helping them combat fires in the area.

Sandstrom stresses that they are backup to the local fire departments, that they are not meant to be a first responder to fires.

“As a community we need to band together to protect each other’s property,” said Sandstrom. “What is the cost of a yard, a house, a life? ‘If it’s mine it’s priceless,’ that’s how people think and if it was your yard or life, you would say the same thing.”

He added that volunteer rural fire departments are dedicated to protecting these homes and lives because the victims of fire are their friends, neighbours and family members, a dedication his company shares.

“We live here, this is home,” he said. “We are able to provide a service to the area that could save lives and/or property. As a company, it is the most meaningful way that we can give back to the area.”

While their focus is on the immediate area, they are open to discussions with any municipalities or fire departments requesting their services. They are already members of Saskatchewan’s Single Engine Aircraft Tanker (SEAT) program and could be asked to go anywhere in that province to fight fire. They are working with the Manitoba government to develop a similar program, as well as federal departments like the Riding Mountain National Park.

The Sandstroms believe that this is the way of the future and that once people see the value of the service and the logistics and legalities iron themselves out, that more aerial spraying outfits will begin to offer it.

“We fully believe that over the next 10 years that more and more operators will be following our lead and bring this type of service to their areas. I know we will continue to offer this for years to come.”

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