DELTA, B.C.– Fire breaks failed to keep a raging wildfire from growing in an environmentally significant peat bog on Monday as smoke, which could be smelled in downtown Vancouver, drifted over the Lower Mainland.
The blaze covered about 20 hectares Monday morning.
Fire chief Gordon Freeborn said the fire in Burns Bog was about one kilometre wide and two kilometres long as crews tried to get control of the blaze at its edges.
“We just need to slow it down on the fringes,” he added.
“It’s going well. We’ve got ground crews in and hopefully by the end of the day we’ll have established our perimeters again. It’s looking good at this point. Very favourable.”
The bog is about 25 kilometres southwest of downtown Vancouver and borders the south arm of the Fraser River. Conservationists say the bog, which covers more than 4,000 hectares, is the largest undeveloped urban land mass in North America.
Smoke from blazing peat hung in the air over Vancouver on Monday, but officials said there’s no reason to panic about air quality.
“There’s a slight elevation of particulate in the air in areas west of the fire,” said Ken Stubbs, a division manager with the air quality monitoring and assessment department of the Greater Vancouver Regional District.
“Those who are noticing some aggravation should contact their doctor or the health branch.”
Aircraft dropped a kilometre-wide trail of retardant around the edge of the blaze at nightfall on Sunday, but Freeborn said the fire broke through in a couple of places.
As a result of the fire, first reported Sunday afternoon, officials were advising people to keep their windows closed if they were bothered by smoke.
Sixty-five firefighters from the Delta Fire Department, regional district and B.C. Forest Service were on the scene, along with nine air tankers and several helicopters. The cause of the fire was not known.
Environment Minister Barry Penner said he was concerned about the environmental impact of losing part of the bog.
“Burns Bog has long been considered the lungs of the Lower Mainland. It helps contribute to good air quality most of the time,” he said at the legislature in Victoria. “So we’re working very hard with the associated agencies to make sure the fire is put out. … I’m confident that, in a reasonable period of time, we will get that fire under control and put out.”
Burns Bog is a forested area that provides habitat to rare plants and animals. Last year, the federal, provincial and local governments came to an agreement that allowed a large piece of it to be protected as an Ecological Conservancy Area.
The bog has caught fire before, most recently in 1996 when it took two days to extinguish a blaze that destroyed 170 hectares.
“There has been a history of fires there in the past and there are times if the fire gets down into the peat that it can continue to smoulder for some time, so that’s obviously a concern,” said Penner.
Mayor Lois Jackson said the nature of the bog made fighting the fire more difficult.
“It’s going to be a big job to put this one out,” she said.
Dr. John Blatherwick of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority said people with respiratory problems, seniors and young children would likely be bothered by the haze from the fire.
“The problem with smoke from forest fires is that it’s a very fine particulate,” he said. “It is that kind that causes problems so those people who are susceptible to respiratory problems will have more problems.
“It’s blowing into a fairly metropolitan area and it’s going to last a few days until they get it under control.”
The regional district was monitoring the direction of the smoke and reporting its patterns on its website.
Eliza Olson, president of the Burns Bog Conservation Society, said the blaze began in a corner of the bog where crews had begun lowering the water table to dry the area out.
“They lowered it because a farmer was threatening to sue the Corporation of Delta if his farmland became flooded,” she said.
“When you start reducing the water table and the bog dries out, it makes it subject to catch fire.”
Olson said while the fire is devastating for the bog, if it had to happen, at least birds and wildlife are fatter and stronger from the summer season and able to get away from the flames.