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Rob Shaw: The Canadian firefighting bucket our military doesn't use

Delta company urges federal government to do what others do
bambi-bucket
The Bambi bucket is used around the world by military to fight fires, but not by Canadian military.

A Delta company whose water buckets are being used for helicopter firefighting in B.C., as well as in more than 100 countries, is appealing to the Canadian military to equip its aircraft so it can help supplement beleaguered B.C. pilots in battling back wildfires.

SEI Industries has the world market cornered on water buckets for helicopters, operating out of a small warehouse in Delta, where it supplies not only private companies contracted to B.C. Wildfire Service, but also 51 militaries, including the United States, Germany, Spain, Japan, Brazil, South Korea and more.

In those countries, armed forces helicopters pitch in during wildfire season, attaching SEI’s “Bambi bucket” to their helicopters so they can drop thousands of litres of water or fire retardant onto forest fires — for the largest helicopters it can rival the capacity of even fixed-wing water bombers.

The bright orange fabric bucket has been ubiquitous with helicopter firefighting since its invention in the 1970s, offering the added benefits of being easy to refill in lakes, rivers and even swimming pools, as well as being collapsible for storage and transportation.

The Delta company keeps a relatively low profile, quietly selling to defence departments and private companies around the world, but its B.C.-based employees are speaking up because they say it makes no sense that Canada is one of the only major countries not using its military to help provinces during increasingly-difficult wildfire seasons.

“In California, which is where we look at a model that would work for B.C., even though the National Guard and army do a lot of firefighting, it’s only after the commercial resources are tapped out,” said Robin Cnudde, an SEI manager.

“That’s what we’re suggesting.”

SEI sells millions of dollars annually in other products to Canada’s Department of National Defence, including fuel bladders. It estimates Canada’s 100 helicopters could be equipped for fire fighting for only $15 million, providing a critical supplement to provincial resources during emergencies when contracted pilots exceed their flight hours or resources are stretched thin.

“For the Canadian military to say we’re too busy doing other things, to me that doesn’t really cut it,” said Cnudde.

“What is true is it’s not in their job, nobody has ever told them to do it, it’s never been part of their mission profile, so therefore they don’t have a budget for it or train for it.”

The idea of national firefighting resources has been a topic of debate this year as several provinces battle severe forest fires.

The federal government currently only uses its military to help in limited circumstances, including evacuations, logistics and front-line support on the ground.

The Defence Department said it’s not interested in expanding that role to helicopter firefighting.

“Given the inherent dangers that come with wildfires and secondary effects, it is critically important that CAF members receive the appropriate training to ensure their safety and their ability to effectively carry out their duties,” DND said in a statement.

“At this time there are no plans to provide wildfire training to CAF members who are not preparing to deploy through a provincial request for assistance.”

But B.C.’s premier raised the idea of an expanded fleet of federal firefighting equipment with Harjit Sajjan, the federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness, during a tour Tuesday of communities affected by recent wildfires near Kelowna.

“One of the areas we canvassed during our tours, that I canvassed with him, was is there an opportunity for the federal government to have more capital that they can deploy across the country, the planes, the water bombers, the helicopters that can bomb water or fire retardant?” Eby said in an interview.

“The federal government is very well placed to have those kinds of resources, to move them across the country and internationally.

“Provinces are doing it on our own but it’d be great to have the federal government involved in bringing more capital to the fight, more planes and more water bombers and so on.”

Canada has several types of helicopters, all of which SEI says it already supplies bambi buckets to in other countries and are plug and play compatible with its 20 different fabric bucket systems. There are Cormorants for search and rescue (with some stationed at CFB Comox), Griffins, Cyclones (mostly based on navy ships) and Chinooks.

B.C. Wildfire Service has a private contractor in Kamloops flying a Chinook helicopter this season, and because of the aircraft’s ability to lift heavy loads it uses a large bambi bucket that can drop more than 7500 litres of water, said Cnudde. That’s more than half the capacity of ordinary B.C. water bombers.

Cnudde said it’s frustrating to be seeing the bambi bucket used across the world, but not in the military of the country where the company is based. NASA uses bambi buckets for its own firefighting and spaceport operations in Florida. Japan used it to help dump water on the Fukishima nuclear disaster in 2011. The Americans used it to put out a fire on their aircraft carrier in San Diego in 2020.

“We’ve probably got about 90% of the world’s market for this kind of bucket,” he said.

SEI started quiet efforts last year to convince Canadian politicians to consider the idea. It emailed 240 MLAs, MPs and mayors in B.C. and Alberta, as well as toured fire departments in B.C.’s interior and north. There was brief interest from Ottawa, including from the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of National Defence, and several MLAs from BC United came to tour the facility. But Ottawa hasn’t budged.

“DND has got a very byzantine procurement process and their contracting takes a long time,” said Cnudde. “It frustrates a lot of people not just in the industry but also the military itself. Even though on paper this would be a simple thing to do this would take time to get the channels.”

The company said it will continue to try and change the mind of the federal government. While SEI stands to benefit financially from such a deal, Cnudde said the real goal is to see a product designed and developed in Canada help out in this country during emergencies, as it is already doing across the world.

“Obviously we’ve got a commercial interest, but this has gone way beyond that,” he said.

“If you are talking about saving people's homes and property it’s a no-brainer.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. rob@robshawnews.com