A fire that has raged through an immense, environmentally sensitive bog in a suburb of Vancouver and threatens to burn invisibly underground for weeks likely started at an illegal road that snakes in from nearby private property, firefighters say.
The road, a heavily tracked clearing layered with sawdust and hog fuel (wood chips), straddles the boundary between the private property and the protected Burns Bog. Firefighters used it to get into the heart of the blackened, smoking terrain after it flared up on Sunday night.
“It’s pretty darn close to the fire,” Delta Fire Chief Gordon Freeborn said. “That [hog fuel] wasn’t itself the source, but maybe a portion of it was. The thing about the fire is it burns up its evidence.”
About 700 square metres of land is covered with wood chips that had been illegally dumped, some of it estimated to have sunk about nine metres into the ground, he said.
Someone may have been using the area as an access point to the government-owned bog and inadvertently started the fire with a cigarette or all-terrain vehicle, he said.
Delta police are investigating, although they say no evidence of criminal activity has been uncovered.
More than 100 firefighters slowly advanced on the two-square- kilometre fire step by step yesterday with picks, shovels and hoses, soaking the intensely flammable peat moss underground.
Now mostly smoking with occasional flames, the fire has been especially difficult to fight because of the veins of peat that smoulder as much as 10 metres under the surface.
Even if a surface fire appears to have been put out, the peat can reignite it from below, or burn under the 30-metre firebreaks that surround the blaze. When the peat burns, the ground around it becomes unstable, meaning firefighters must watch for sinkholes.
Paul Gill, manager of the property where the road originates adjacent to the bog, said a tenant who skipped out on his rent two years ago left the hog fuel. A month ago, Mr. Gill began turning the area into farmland.
“We went and spent the money, we have an agrologist report, it tells us what to do, we have to put topsoil on it, then we can grow,” he said.
He was indignant upon hearing rumours that there was a drug lab on the property, and that the firefighters were using his property to fight the fire but also saying the fire was started because of the road that cuts across it.
“On one hand, they’re pissing on your foot and on the other hand they’re using [the road]. That’s the part I found funny,” Mr. Gill said.
Since the fire began, Martin Mars water bombers have replaced helicopters, dropping buckets of water at targeted locations. While the total costs of the air campaign haven’t been tabulated, the water bombing cost about $300,000.
“It’s like a big sleeping giant,” Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said. “It didn’t grow overnight; that’s good. We didn’t have any winds; that’s excellent.
“It’s a foot at a time, digging and shovelling and hosing.”
Lower Mainland residents may get a break from a thick, aromatic, smoky haze that hangs low in the air, said Jon Blatherwick, Vancouver’s chief medical officer.
With the winds moving the smoke around, it’s unlikely that anyone has been seriously affected, he said. “What I keep reminding people is that while we’ve had the air-quality advisory, our air quality has been better than it has been in Toronto for the same period of time,” Dr. Blatherwick said.
Greater Vancouver’s air-quality warning was lifted yesterday morning, and students set to run the Terry Fox Run today can go ahead without any restrictions, he said.
Burns Bog is the largest domed peat bog in North America, stretching about 4,000 hectares — 10 times the size of Stanley Park.
Covering the wet ground are trees and bog plants such as sphagnum moss and Labrador tea. The bog is home to many unique species.
In an effort to preserve it, the varying levels of government bought it last year for $73-million.