The following is a quote from the 1957 B.C. Forest Service Handbook on Forest Fire Suppression: “Small fires of up to 200 or 300 acres may be controlled on what is termed a one work-period attempt.”
A “work period” was the optimum time to bring a fire under control — and, ideally, it meant one day.
These words were written at a time when the B.C. Forest Service was a well-staffed, efficient organization, working without many of the resources available today. Sixty years later, what changes have taken place in forest fire suppression?
There have been many technological advances. Air patrols have replaced mountain-top fire lookouts, and helicopters are used to deliver water and deploy crews to remote access fires. A provincial air tanker fleet is available for retardant drops.
The Forest Service has a VHF radio network throughout the province, electronic weather stations have radio telemetry links, and there is a provincial lightning locator system. Fireline personnel have hand-held radios, and powersaws and portable fire pumps are much lighter.
But other changes have been less positive. Global warming has led to the spread of forest pests such as the mountain pine beetle due to winters being too mild to hold them in check. Large areas of insect-killed standing timber can pose a high wildfire risk to communities in the B.C. Interior.
The milder winters also result in lower snowpacks, which affects water availability during the summer.
In the future, it’s likely the fire season will start earlier and end later. This is a concern, particularly since many of the seasonally hired firefighters are drawn from college and university students.
There are more people living in forested areas at risk of wildfire, and not all of the people relocating from city environments are fire smart regarding the removal of flammable vegetation from around their dwellings. It seems the public in general believes that government authorities bear the primary responsibility for keeping them safe from wildfire, even though the subdivisions they live in may have been approved by local municipalities without detailed consideration of fire risk.
In 1995, the Forest Practice Code came into effect in British Columbia. That same year, the responsibility for wildfire management was taken away from regions and districts, and transferred to the Protection Branch. Staff who had filled district fire control officer and fire boss positions through a duty roster system were no longer involved in fire control operations.
This decision cut off access to many individuals who had accumulated valuable experience. The loss was brought home several years later when the province was experiencing a bad fire season and the Protection Branch was forced to borrow some of the district personnel to help out.
Environmental issues have led to changes that have had adverse effects. Less broadcast burning of logging debris is taking place these days, partly due to public concerns about air quality.
While contemporary logging methods and close utilization standards have generally removed the necessity of burning this debris to reduce fire hazard, there is still the need to burn for silvicultural reasons in certain forest types. The reduction of controlled burning has an unfortunate consequence in that broadcast burns present an excellent opportunity for fire protection personnel to learn about fire behaviour, including the use of back-fires as a fire control tool.
There is also a “light hand on the land” policy that has affected the way forest fires are fought. The idea seems to be that fires should be brought under control with the least man-caused environmental disturbance. This can lead to a reluctance on the part of a fire boss to have bulldozers construct control lines, which would be more likely to check a fire’s spread than those dug by hand.
At this point, I should state that these observations are in no way meant to criticize the actions of firefighting personnel. Having had 18 years’ experience on the fireline I’m well aware of what crews have to undergo, and have a great appreciation for what they achieve under difficult and often dangerous conditions.
The Watershed Renewal Program initiated by Forest Renewal B.C. in the mid-1990s had an adverse effect, reducing road access for ground attack on wildfires. Many miles of logging roads were deactivated, which made it harder to get heavy equipment to fires after bridges and culverts were pulled out and the access roads deconstructed.
By the 1990s, cutbacks in the forest industry meant there was less of this heavy equipment working in the woods that could be used to assist in controlling large wildfires. The pool of experienced bulldozer operators who could safely and effectively build fireguards on steep terrain was depleted.
Incidentally, there’s a great irony in the continued belief that it’s necessary to shut down logging operations during periods of high fire danger while at the same time allowing public access for recreational purposes. The days of steam-operated yarders is long gone, and the likelihood of fires originating from responsible logging operations is many times less than from irresponsible members of the public.
That aircraft have a value in fire suppression is indisputable. There’s no more welcome sound than that of an approaching helicopter when you’re waiting for a medevac flight for an injured worker lying on a stretcher in a forest clearing. It is also preferable to be able to get to a lightning-caused fire burning in heavy timber on a steep mountainside by rappelling through an opening in the canopy, rather than hike in burdened with equipment.
Helicopters dropping water on specific hot spots can greatly assist ground crews conducting mop-up operations. It is not, however, efficient or cost effective to bomb scattered smokes deep within the perimeter of a fire in the latter stages of mop-up when there are other more suitable alternatives.
Most of the changes that have taken place are not likely to reverse. Climate change and human demographics have a slow inevitability. It’s unlikely the B.C. Forest Service will be reset to the level of its peak efficiency in the last century. Logging equipment best suited to fire control will continue to disappear as, sadly, will its skilled operators.
Sixty years ago, the B.C. Forest Service would hire local citizens who were willing to go to work fighting forest fires. This seemed to work well, as it provided a source of fit personnel with good local knowledge.
Over time, the Forest Service seemed to move away from this hiring policy. Forest fires that were the responsibility of major timber companies would be dealt with by their crews, who would be asked to help out on Forest Service fires when the need arose. The shift toward more mechanized harvesting methods together with a general shrinkage of the forest industry has reduced this pool of firefighters.
Whenever wildfire approaches a community in Canada, the official reaction nowadays is to order mandatory evacuation. This may be done with the intent of ensuring public safety, but the result is that many individuals who are not only capable of defending their own homes but have a strong vested interest in doing so are chased out.
That leaves only so many personnel from local fire departments and Forest Service suppression crews. If there aren’t enough to defend each threatened structure, triage decisions will inevitably mean some structures will be lost — structures that might have been saved if the homeowners had been allowed to stay and safeguard what is their major asset.
These days, the provincial government promotes neighbourhood emergency preparedness with the dire warning that in the event of a widespread major disaster such as an earthquake, citizens should be prepared to fend for themselves for days without outside assistance.
In other words, you may have to dig yourself and your neighbours out of collapsed houses. If said houses have natural gas, you will have to put out any fires before they spread to all the surrounding structures. This is all perfectly reasonable, but it’s difficult to understand why the government can’t allow the same type of individual resourcefulness in a wildfire situation.
During the 2003 Kelowna fire, those residents who defied the order and stayed managed to save their homes from destruction.
Of the 50,000 residents who were ordered to evacuate, there surely must have been many individuals who would have been willing and able to become emergency firefighters. If you can chop kindling for a campfire safely, use a shovel and operate a garden hose, and are in reasonable physical shape, you can be a firefighter.
Other countries make use of local volunteers. Australia has organized bushfire brigades in regions subject to wildfires. The B.C. government should consider setting up something similar in those areas of the Interior that are at risk during the fire season.
Regretfully, I’m too old to fight forest fires now, and therefore unable to determine first hand whether 200-acre fires are controlled these days on the old “one work-period attempt.” From what I gather on the news media, I suspect they may not.
This year’s fire season has been compared to that of 1958, when 4,120 fires burned a total of 8,358.47 square kilometres, which works out to 2,065,378 acres. So far this year, 1,302 fires had burned 12,128 square kilometres or 2,996,926 acres.
Simple mathematics leads to a disturbing conclusion.
Nick Raeside has worked in almost all aspects of wildfire control, beginning as a volunteer bushfire-fighter in New Zealand, then progressing from initial attack crewman on remote access wildfires in the B.C. Interior for the forest industry to eventually becoming fire protection officer for a large forest products company. He has also worked on wildland/urban interface fire suppression while employed by the B.C. Forest Service. He lives in Nanoose Bay.