New digs for B.C. forest fire defenders

New digs for B.C. forest fire defenders

14 May 2010

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Canada — In a cool, high-ceilinged room dominated by blinking display screens, Jeff Berry is showing how to get a jump on a hellishly hot opponent.

The fight typically begins with a phone call, from someone who sees a lick of flame on a hill or riverbank. The blaze is classified, assessed and, if deemed a threat, targeted for a hit. The time between a phone call and an air tanker pilot being dispatched is measured in minutes.

And every one of them counts.

“Every minute we can save helps,” said Mr. Berry, who, as manager of British Columbia’s Provincial Air Tanker Centre, is on the front lines of an annual battle to keep lives, homes and businesses beyond the reach of wildfires.

This summer, Mr. Berry – who in previous seasons has overseen tanker operations from cramped, stuffy trailers at the Kamloops Airport – will be dispatching pilots from a new, $4.5-million Provincial Wildfire Co-ordination Centre. Unveiled Thursday under sunny skies that hinted at hotter days to come, the new facility is in the heart of a wildfire zone and the nerve centre for a provincial wildfire management branch that tackles some 2,000 fires a year at a cost of millions of dollars.

And with Environment Canada’s long-range forecasts calling for hot, dry weather this summer, the centre’s inaugural year could be busy.

“We really hope we don’t have to use it to its full capacity this summer,” Forests Minister Pat Bell said at the centre’s official opening. “But 2010 appears to be shaping up as a challenge.”

Like a fast-moving forest fire, that challenge has more than one dimension. There is the logistical feat of deploying crews, aircraft and equipment to blazes hundreds of kilometres apart. There are the headaches posed by difficult terrain and weather.

Then there are the costs.

Wildfires are routine in B.C., where forests cover nearly one million square kilometres and where the provincial government has maintained a fire-fighting force since 1912.

Of an average 2,000 wildfires detected each year – half of which are caused by lightning strikes, the others by human activity – only a handful typically result in damage to homes or businesses.

But wildfires roared to a higher public profile in 2003, when huge blazes, including the Okanagan Mountain Park fire near Kelowna, destroyed more than 334 homes and forced the evacuation of 45,000 people. Three pilots were killed during the season. The provincial wildfire management branch reported fire control costs of $371-million.

That tally was a record – until last year. In 2009, B.C. recorded more than 3,000 fires that pushed direct firefighting costs to $403-million.

Last year’s fire season forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in “interface” fires – wildfires that put communities and people at risk. Such fires are, in part, the legacy of firefighting efforts of years past, which left more trees standing and increased the amount of fuel.

By the time the Okanagan Mountain Park fire took off, previous decades of fire control in the area meant that it had gone without three “disturbance intervals” – periods when the area would have been burned and fuel buildup reduced.

Fire suppression efforts also changed the makeup of forests, increasing the percentage of mature, lodgepole pine in big stretches of forest and creating ideal habitat for hungry mountain pine beetles. Stands of dry, pine beetle-killed wood now ring many interior communities.

At the same time that human activity was altering forest systems, communities and roads were expanding, pushing into areas that were once forest domain. That tension is not likely to disappear, because people like living near forests, Mr. Bell said, adding that he lives in such an area himself.

This year’s fire season has started early, and, as a precaution, the government has already issued restrictions on backyard burning in some areas. A prolonged stretch of hot, dry conditions could send the fire risk skyrocketing. The torrent of information streaming into the new wildfire centre includes hourly updates of the fire weather index, a numerical ranking that assesses fire risk based on factors such as wind speed and moisture levels in brush and trees. The index starts at zero and goes up in colour-coded stages, with anything over 50 presenting a flaming-red, “problem” fire.

Last July, the Glenrosa fire in West Kelowna registered a scorching 104.

When the hot days hit this summer, and helicopters and air tankers are likely to be deployed by the dozens in keeping with the province’s quick-response policy, Mr. Berry and his colleagues plan to keep their cool.

The new equipment and surroundings should help. So should an emphasis on classifying fires in terms of their threat to people and property, gauging what it would take to put them out and knowing when to let the flames run their course.

Sometimes, that is the best, or only, option, Mr. Berry said.

“A really big mistake you can make in this business,” he said, “is to over-commit to a loser.”

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