While real video footage does show helicopters spreading fire above forested areas, they were carrying out a wildfire management technique known as a planned ignition. This helps reduce the spread of wildfire. The May/June 2023 wildfires were thought to have been started by lightning strikes and a range of human causes which did not include flame-throwing helicopters.
In May and June 2023, parts of Canada saw massive wildfires that burned through more than 3 million hectares of land and caused mass evacuations. Extreme temperatures and drought conditions caused what was reportedly Canada's most destructive wildfire season in history.
Misinformation about the fires also spread quickly. Some Twitter users and TikTok accounts claimed that helicopters were responsible for starting the wildfires, sharing footage of a helicopter that appeared to be spreading flames into the forest from the sky.
Regarding those Canadian fires… https://t.co/qq3ArI7Bcz
— David Vance (@DVATW) June 8, 2023
However, this is an incorrect description of events. While the aircraft was indeed throwing flames at the treetops, this does not mean it started the wildfires. The helicopter was carrying out what is known as a "planned ignition," a technique intended to control the spread of the flames.
The video clip in the above tweet, in which the yellow and blue helicopter is visible above the trees, was pulled from a Bloomberg News story.
A video on the official YouTube account of the British Columbia Wildfire Service shows a similar helicopter (at the 1:30 mark) to that seen in the tweet, carrying out the same planned ignition activity over forested land.
The Twitter account of the British Columbia Wildfire Service explained how planned ignitions work: "Planned ignitions are an essential wildfire management tactic, used to contain a wildfire by bringing its edge to established control lines and reducing the ability for further spread." It also described how this method created "less intensity than free burning fire."
The BC Wildfire Service, taking advantage of current conditions, conducted a planned ignition on the Donnie Creek wildfire (G80280) extending over 30km and burrning around 10,000ha, solidifying containment lines and limiting further growth to the south. pic.twitter.com/npLxj1CMDo
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) June 2, 2023
Planned ignitions are an essential wildfire management tactic, used to contain a wildfire by bringing its edge to established control lines and reducing the ability for further spread. For full incident details on the Donnie Creek wildfire visit: https://t.co/5G56gkfhLm
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) June 2, 2023
The tweets noted how the service carried out two successful planned ignition's operations on June 1 and 2, 2023:
Two successful planned ignitions took place on June 1 &2, securing 55 km of line along the south flank of the fire. Ground crews can now access this section of the fire safely and tie that line in to other sections of the fire.
Video on the ignition: https://t.co/JkMn8Rqcfe
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) June 5, 2023
A January 2023 video from the BC Wildfire Service also explained how planned ignitions help keep their firefighters safe:
Incident Commander Mark Healey said in the video:
Planned ignition is when we are going to put fire on the landscape. So we use planned ignition so that our firefighters can have one foot in the black. [...] That makes firefighters feel safe because they know that a fire can't re-burn. [...] We don't just walk out and start putting fire on the ground. There's a plan that's put in place by an ignition specialist. They go out, look at the area well beforehand, evaluate the fuels, the weather, they put fire sciences behind it, they put in a lot of contingency plans, work off of guards or natural features such as lakes or rivers so that it's a safe line for the firefighters to be at when we're doing these ignitions. They are done either by hand ignitions by crews on the ground as supervised by an ignition specialist or they're done by the ignition specialist from the air using aerial operations.
Mike Morrow, an ignition specialist, spoke about their efforts suppressing fires at British Columbia's Donnie Creek in June 2023: "We're taking the fuels out on our terms rather than letting Mother Nature guide the project."
The aerial planned ignitions in this particular wildfire used helitorches as a method of igniting fires in controlled areas. According to Morrow:
[This is basically] a 45 gallon drum [of] gelled gasoline that the pilot has suspended under the helicopter as he flies along. As we give him the command he pulls the trigger on the remote device which shoots the jelly gasoline which is ignited out the end of the nozzle and into the tree tops. It's a very quick ignition as compared to some of our other devices we use. The helitorch is very quick to ignite especially in the black spruce which is what we need to maintain control of our ignition operations.
Helitorches were also used in 2015 to fight California's wildfires. According to CBS News, "The heli-torch is used to remove fuel from the area surrounding a fire to help prevent its spread. A propane torch is suspended underneath the helicopter, and firefighters can pinpoint where they want to burn the vegetation."
But what actually caused the Canadian wildfires? Canada's warm and dry conditions generated conditions that essentially make the vegetation act as kindling for fires. Such weather also breeds more lightning which during normal seasons causes around half of Canada's wildfires. The remaining wildfires were caused by humans through a range of ways from discarded cigarette butts to sparks from passing trains. Officials in the province of Alberta said they are still trying to determine the exact causes of the wildfires, while lightning appears to have been the main cause in Quebec.
While the above videos appear to be authentic, their content was misrepresented in social media posts. The purpose of this method of spreading flames is to control wildfires and protect firefighters, not start catastrophic wildfires. As such, we rate this claim as "Miscaptioned."