Comment: Why B.C. decided to shut down fire lookouts

Re: “Manmade mistake led to wildfires,” letter, July 18.

The letter-writer’s assertion that a “manmade mistake led to wildfires” is simply wrong. The fires that occurred on the evening of July 6 and 7 were caused by lightning, and occurred during explosive fire behaviour conditions, principally wind-driven fire that has resulted in difficult-to-contain fires and the evacuation of 40,000 people.

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The B.C. Wildfire Service has access to technology that detects lightning ground strikes, and within a few seconds of occurrence, staff know the geographic location and the energy characteristics of each strike.

With that information, it is possible to determine the likelihood of a fire starting and to route and schedule aircraft patrols to detect and make initial attacks on fires that might be found.

The writer is correct in that most fire lookouts were closed from the mid-1970s to 1980s.

The reason was simple: Lookouts were ineffective in detecting either human- or lightning-caused fires.

With my mentor and experienced hand, Bob Fielder, we conducted a series of forest-fire detection studies in the province’s five forest districts and 101 ranger districts.

The studies conducted from 1972 to 1974 utilized 30 years of forest-fire data to arrive at an understanding of the cause of the fires, how those fires were being detected and how they were being reported.

To generalize, the best detectors of human-caused fires are those who start them.

There are some exceptions, but very few.

The issue that was faced is that although fires were discovered very quickly, it often took hours for those fires to be reported to fire-control agencies. This was in the time before cellphones and organized blue pages in telephone directories.

Frank Tannock, a senior manager in the forest-protection program, working with B.C. Tel, now Telus, created the first B.C.-wide fire-reporting number, Zenith 5555.

Its successor today is *5555 on your cellphone or 1-800-663-5555, which is answered 24/7 during fire season. Improvement in detecting lightning-caused fires took the implementation of technology that was initially developed by NASA, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

By the mid-1980s, the province was well on its way to establishing a network of 22 lightning detectors throughout the province, three detectors in Whitehorse and two in northwest Alberta.

As the technology came online, those lookouts that had been left in place pending the arrival of this technology were closed.


Dave Gilbert is a retired registered professional forester.

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