Sweat and science at root of modern strategy to put out wildfires

Sweat and science at root of modern strategy to put out wildfires

19 June 2009

published by www.vancouversun.com

Canada —

Pete Laing will tell you fire is war.

“I’ve worked with combat veterans,” allows the director of operations on the west branch of the Tyaughton fire near Lillooet. “They say, “It’s like being in a war, but no one is trying to kill me.’”

Just as real wars are ultimately won by ground troops and not jet fighters, wildfires are vanquished by sooty-faced firefighters working the ground with pick axes and hoses and shovels and not by aerial drops of water, chemical retardant, or firefighting gels.

Thick forest canopies can act like umbrellas, sheltering flames on the floor that can smoulder within root systems and unexpectedly flare up in the coming days.

“You can’t put fires out by an aerial attack,” confirms Rob Moore, fire protection officer for the B.C. Forest Service. “It buys you time, but it doesn’t suppress the fire.”

As in any modern war, science and technology also play an increasingly important role.

The advent of satellite-based global-positioning technology allows crews to accurately map roads, fireguards, helipads, and other infrastructure, all key to fighting a rogue blaze.

• At the firefighters’ base camp alongside the Yalakom River, 20 kilometres east of the 8,000-hectare blaze, air-branch director Paul Buxton-Carr sits in his trailer office and monitors helicopter operations on a laptop computer program.

A colour-coded system — yellow for aircraft in the air, red for those on the ground, etc. — allows better utilization of expensive helicopter time between fire districts. Special tracking technology provides information on the location, coverage, and effectiveness of air drops.

Aircraft charters can account for close to 50 per cent of firefighting costs, says Buxton-Carr, noting that up to 16 helicopters were employed at the height of the Tyaughton fire, so named because it began near Tyaughton Lake. “It is significant. Aircraft are an expensive resource.”

• On a smoke-enshrouded logging road north of Marshall Lake, fire behaviour analyst Jean Walters stands in the back of his pickup truck and takes weather readings every 15 minutes.

Relative humidity, temperature, wind speed, and wind direction are fed into a model — computer or hard copy — that is used to predict how the fire might spread and how best to fight it.

Other factors include the topography and the type of forest, which varies greatly depending on the aspect: north-facing slopes are wetter and dominated here by Douglas firs, while south-facing slopes are drier with more lodgepole and ponderosa pine.

Modelling information is meant to enhance, not replace human field experience. “Fighting fires in this terrain is probably as difficult as it gets,” offers Walters’ colleague, Bob Pfannenschmidt, who has served 37 years with the forest service.

On the day The Vancouver Sun visits Marshall Lake, two helicopters — a heavy-lift tandem-rotor Boeing Vertol 107, and a medium-lift Bell 214 — perform an aerial ballet. One follows the other in careful rotation as they fill their buckets with lake water, then douse the forest near a fireguard established to keep the flames away from about 20 recreational homes.

This fire has been deliberately set as a way to remove wood fuel under controlled conditions next to the fireguard (created by removing the ground cover down to mineral soil by hand or bulldozer, or using an existing logging road) and reducing the chance of wildfire spread.

“My heart always goes fast when we start this stuff,” says Brian Koster, director of operations for the controlled burn. Ask him if any such burns have got away from him, and he smiles and says: “I haven’t always been successful, but I’ve learned from them.”

Helicopters are also used to move firefighters and to drop Flash 21, a fuel gelling agent, in steep forests where elite firefighters would be at risk of becoming trapped.

Mark Hogg earns up to $140,000 a year as a senior pilot of the Vertol, a cavernous helicopter that served with now-defunct New York Airways in the 1960s and is capable of hauling more than 4,000 litres of water.

He explains the most dangerous part of his job is avoiding other firefighting aircraft using the same cramped and hazy airspace. “When it’s smoky, hot, and busy, it gets pretty interesting.”

Aircraft operate on one radio channel, but there is also chatter between pilots and ground crews on separate channels. Bird dogs are aircraft used to specifically coordinate the firefighting helicopters to ensure safe and orderly flying.

The risk to aerial firefighters became evident in 2003, when three pilots died fighting B.C. forest fires: one in the crash of a helicopter near Bonaparte Lake, north of Kamloops; two others in the crash of an air tanker, near Cranbrook.

• Sooty ground crews mopping up near a fireguard 20 kilometres north of Carpenter Lake use a hose linked to a generator and water delivered by tanker truck to douse the smoke and small flames, all without the use of face masks.

“It gets to you sometimes,” concedes Roger Teigrob of Merritt, who’s been at this job on and off for the past 17 years. “I might pay for it in later years.”

The base rate for a firefighter is $16.92 an hour, rising to $23.25 for a crew supervisor.

Rachelle Shimansky is Teigrob’s pig-tailed roommate, starting her first season at firefighting. She exercises regularly and works on road building and pipeline crews, but finds firefighting especially tough work, hiking up and down hillsides with equipment for 12 hours a day.

“I thought I was in shape,” she laments, examining her dirt-choked fingernails. “You sleep well at night.”

About 350 firefighters have been aggressively attacking the Tyaughton fire late this week at a cost of $500,000 to $600,000 per day, which compares with more than $1 million a day at the height of the blaze. It is estimated to be 90 per cent under control.

The human-caused wildfire started May 29 near Pearson Pond, a kidney-shaped body of water located near the west end of Carpenter Lake, and has spread generally north and eastward to encompass 8,000 hectares. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Base camp has been named Hoover Camp in honour of Brian Hoover, a long-standing member of the B.C. Forest Service who died in Merritt of medical problems this week between tours of duty.

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