Historic Wildfires Prompt Kelowna Int’l to Move Commercial Flights From Day to Night

Historic Wildfires Prompt Kelowna Int’l to Move Commercial Flights From Day to Night
Victoria Soukup
Published in: 

With wildfires raging throughout British Columbia last summer, two things kept Kelowna International Airport (YLW) ahead of the game: good working relationships with the provincial and national governments, and partners such as Nav Canada.

More than 28,000 square kilometers burned in Canada’s far western province during the August 2023 wildfires, making it the worst wildfire season in British Columbia since at least 1958. Two fires came dangerously close to Kelowna, forcing residents to evacuate the city and prompting federal authorities to shut down the airspace surrounding the airport that served more than 2 million passengers in 2023. 

Stopping and re-starting commercial flights at YLW required a methodical approach. When the airspace was closed for everything but aerial firefighting activities, commercial carriers first diverted their in-air flights and then canceled all subsequent flights into YLW. After the airspace remained fully closed for two days, reopening took about one week. Airport leaders negotiated and then executed a detailed plan with numerous stakeholders, including firefighting authorities, air traffic controllers and multiple regulatory agencies. The process required constant give-and-take to balance the critical need of firefighting operations with the complicated logistics of getting people, goods and services in and out of the essentially landlocked community.


Project: Adapting Operations During Nearby Wildfires

Location: Kelowna Int’l Airport, in BC

Scope of Fires: 28,000+ sq. km.

Timeline: Aug 15-25, 2023

Strategy: Work with provincial & federal authorities to allow nighttime takeoffs & landings

Outreach: Provided 1 airport vehicle & 1 team to fight fires within community

Revenue Lost: $100,000, being recaptured with insurance

“This was not our first fire or our first urban interface fire, but the size and proximity of this wildfire to our airport and our airspace caused more issues than ever before,” says Chief Executive Officer Sam Samaddar. “And much of the emergency processes in the past have been linear decision making, which takes longer as one steps through the various agencies. That’s why we circled back during the process and asked if we could all sit down together to discuss what each of us needs and decide how to collaborate to lessen the impact on airport operations, while at the same time allowing the forestry and the airtankers to do the vital work they need to do to attack the fires.”

Changing Boundaries

The wildfires began in early August, and by the 15th airport officials were notified that one just across the lake from Kelowna was growing rapidly. NAV CANADA, which manages the national airspace, established a no-fly zone above the area by determining the center of the fire and drawing a ring with a 5-nautical mile radius. The restriction was manageable for YLW but affected its engine out and missed approach procedures.

“For that first day, the visibility was such that aircraft could fly visual approaches and visual departures,” recalls James Hall, senior manager of Operations at YLW. “But all that shifted in a day, when significant winds moved the first fire closer to the airport. And overnight, it jumped the lake.”

About the same time, a second wildfire broke out just north of the city.

For procedural purposes, NAV CANADA blended the two growing fires together. That meant YLW fell within a 10-nautical mile radius of the fire center. “And that basically shut us down,” recalls Hall. “We had no instrument procedures and no VFR procedures.”

On Aug. 18, NAV CANADA declared a non-discretionary airspace closure, and the area around YLW was protected for firefighting activities only. “We became a ghost town,” Hall remarks solemnly.

Meanwhile, authorities urged 10,000 people to evacuate the Kelowna area. With no flights allowed at the airport and only two roads into and out of the city, evacuating was difficult. “The car rentals did a very brisk business to help people get cars to drive out, but that was not the best situation because the fires were impacting some of the highways as well,” says Samaddar.

During that time, airport officials noticed that the air closure radius established by federal authorities included an important ground-based non-directional beacon just south of the airport that regulates engine-out and missed-approach procedures.

It Pays to Ask

Hall asked officials whether the border of the closure radius could safely be moved a couple hundred meters further away, and officials readily granted his request. “By doing that, it allowed us to open additional procedures the airlines could use to depart and arrive,” he explains. “It was very valuable for the airport to be part of that discussion, because moving that boundary just a little bit provided a very positive impact on our operations.”

Because firefighting aircraft were only operating during the daylight hours, airport officials literally turned YLW’s operations upside down, pivoting from daytime passenger flights to nighttime only. On Aug. 20, the airport reopened for passenger traffic from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Firefighting aircraft continued operating during the day,

“Nighttime operations became an opportunity for us,” says Hall. “Working with all parties involved, we were able to pivot and introduce flight activity overnight. We switched from a day primary operation to a nighttime primary operation. We rolled out flights with the carriers beginning on Aug. 20 for several days. We brought in staff overnight, airlines opened up overnight, we had concessions opening up in the middle of the night and we had security screening in the middle of the night.”

All campus partners worked well together to “re-establish some normalcy,” he reports. Switching from day to night operations required time for various partners to marshal the needed staffing and address challenging logistics. For instance, aircraft that should have been at YLW had been relocated to their home bases.

“Coming in [and departing] by air was still the most viable option,” he says. “A lot of people weren’t comfortable driving over some mountain passes knowing there was so much fire activity in the region. Returning some flight activity to the airport was a huge benefit to the community, and we’re proud how our campus partner team rallied to do that, because there were those who needed to return to the region and those who needed to leave.”

The concessions lineup includes this shop, which sells traditional newsstand items, gifts and packaged food.

Sharing Resources

The YLW aircraft rescue and firefighting team kept a watchful eye on embers landing on airport property but didn’t have to fight any active fires there. “We had crews diligently looking for ash blown onto the site,” says Hall. “In summer months, our airfield is very dry, and it doesn’t take much to spark that.”

Since the airport has three firefighting vehicles but is only required to have two on-site at any given time, it freed up one vehicle and one team of firefighters to help elsewhere in the Kelowna area.

“We obviously wanted to help the community and wanted to provide whatever assistance we could; and with the other two trucks, we were able to meet our requirements at the airport while the third went off site,” Samaddar says.

Damage from the fires is beginning to heal.

Using the airport’s own vehicle reduced risk for YLW team members. “Firefighters were inside the cab the entire time, and it has its own ventilation system and its own breathing apparatus,” he explains.

Taking direction from the British Columbia Wildfire Service, airport firefighters first helped extinguish an “overflow” fire at a nearby landfill. “Because of their work, the city was able to get their landfill operation up and running faster than they thought,” says Samaddar.

Then, the airport truck was deployed to an area where fires coming over a nearby mountain were threatening a nearby neighborhood. “The team was able to shoot water onto houses to prevent them from catching fire and burning,” Samaddar reports. “We serve a large area made up of many communities, and having our fire truck in those communities helped them.”

Inside its own terminal, YLW opened a Customer Care Desk to help customers who came to the airport when it was closed. Desk personnel also assisted travelers who had questions but could not get through to the airlines on the phone or online.

“We had international visitors who were in the middle of all of this who were being told to leave but didn’t know how to leave,” Samaddar recalls. “We helped them with decisions so they could do what they needed to do. In addition, we normally don’t have our administrative office open on weekends, but we opened the office so staff could answer people’s calls. That was very much appreciated by the public because they were frantically trying to reach an airline and get advice. We were able to answer people’s questions with a real live person as opposed to some kind of recording.”

Key Takeaways

Samaddar reports that the airport lost about $100,000 in revenue during the closures and is using its business interruption insurance to recapture those funds. He advises all airport leaders to look at their policies carefully to see if they have that type of insurance.

Another key takeaway highlighted in a post-incident report assembled by the airport was the importance of having good relationships with provincial and federal officials and entities. Using a collaborative decision-making process with such stakeholders helped YLW have a border moved that allowed the airport to begin nighttime air service.

Finally, Samaddar notes that this type of collaboration could become even more important in the future. “When we look at emergency response and the impacts of climate change, we need to have updated plans in place,” he reflects. “We are seeing fires now where we have never seen fires before. And when looking at business continuity plans, it is important to make sure you work with all the agencies in all the provinces. Get to know them very well and develop a plan on how you’re going to attack fires and maintain airport operations as a vital supply chain link to the community.”


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