Wilder fires

Wilder fires

30 August 2010

published by www.torontosun.com

Canada — But what about the rest of us facing future blazes?

In the middle of the mobilization of a nation — men, women and machines from across Canada placed around the burning forests of B.C. — he huddled singed and, if you can guess at such a thing, likely afraid.

Until crews found him here trapped among embers in the Meldrum Complex, a set of fires in the Cariboo region that earlier this month threatened the city of Williams Lake.

What do you know — a baby rabbit.

Small enough to fit in the ash stained palms of beefy firemen who picked it up and carried it out.

They named it “Lucky.”

“It didn’t even have any teeth,” explains one forest fire fighter, patrolling the edge of a new blaze after flames jumped a guarded line.

What it took to save that silly rabbit, as well as the nearby city, is a remarkable story of national unity, organization, a kind of sorcerer’s science, bravery and chance.

It’s also about a national forest fire combat system that, warns a least one leading Canadian expert, should prepare for firestorms heading our way.

We can boast an elaborate effort where fire fighters from across the country come when alarms sound in any corner of the nation. By this weekend, upwards of 2,500 Canadian men and women — the size of some military combat regiments — will have answered the distant call to help put out fires in someone else’s backyard. Most have come here to the B.C. blazes.

Even Americans are routinely in our fight — and we in theirs — forming a united front against fires that can chew through 100 metres of bush a minute and have helped alter the concentration of carbon monoxide 5.5 kilometres above the Earth they scorch.

Dennis Brown, director of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, the Winnipeg-based organization that coordinates the annual effort, points out almost every province and territory has had an exceptional fire season over the past decade.

But most Canadians living in our cities are largely unaware of the missions.

And that, says Brian Stocks, a senior fire research scientist, now retired from the Canadian Forest Service, may come back to burn us all.

“The politicians aren’t that well informed either,” he tells QMI Agency from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where he heads B. J. Stocks Wildfire Investigations Ltd. “And that’s an important issue, when we’re looking at an escalation of fire activity in the future.”

With the drought in Russia that saw 54 people die in forest fires — here in Canada, air tanker pilots Tim Whiting of Langley, B.C., and Brian Tilley of Edmonton, Alb., were killed last month battling B.C. fires in parched conditions — Stocks has little doubt climate change is impacting global wildfires.

That may lead to, over the next fifty years, an increase in both the frequency and severity of fires across Canada.

“The resources we have will only go so far,” Stocks explains.

To this uncomfortable mix, add the smoke from world fires mixing with man-made smog.

Other experts are fretting everything from a shift in the jet streams to concerns massive forest fires may deposit black carbon on sea ice and hasten the thawing.

“My personal opinion is an assumption,” Johann Goldammer, director of The Global Fire Monitoring Center in Germany tells QMI Agency in an email exchange.

“Climate change coupled with anthropogenic impacts…will aggravate the situation and result in more frequent occurrences and severity of wildfire activity globally.”

Here in the burning woods, some of the basics haven’t changed much since the days of the 1948 Chapleau-Mississagi fire in Northeastern Ontario. It was so intense it caused the lights to turn on during the daylight hours in several Texas cities.

Once a fire grows large, no tanker in the sky or crew on the ground can simply stomp it out.

So they treat it like an inebriated Smokey The Bear that shows up in your living room — catching him early, trying to convince it to move away from grandma and the kids, containing him to one level and maybe tempting it to eat itself into a slumber.

It’s also important to know many remote fires are left to burn on their own; replenishing the forests.

This is about the end of something old and the rebirth of new life. It’s all the messages of any Disney movie, played out in the hinterland.

Old-timers will tell you that the fires here have been two-decades in the making, primed by drought conditions and fuelled, in part, by pests like the Mountain Pine Beetle.

All these fires will go out naturally as the season ends. They always do.

But knowing what’s coming at us tomorrow is less predictable and, now suddenly, more debatable.

Sure, that rabbit was carried out, and the flames convinced not to leap the Fraser River into Williams Lake.

But will the rest of the nation be as Lucky in the fires to come?

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