Adapt or burn: Experts credit forest fire management for saving lives

Adapt or burn: Experts credit forest fire management for saving lives

25 May 2011

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Canada — In the summer of 2003, a thunderstorm rolled into the Rocky Mountains of Kootenay National Park, bringing with it a dazzling display of lightning that ignited seven different fires.

Parks Canada’s Rick Kubian knew that his fire crews were going to be in for a rough ride. Following the June monsoon season that didn’t produce any rain, both Banff and Kootenay experienced 42 straight days of blue skies and plus-30 temperatures.

The humidity was so low that the forested valleys were literally baking under the intense heat.

The spot fires that followed that evening quickly got out of control. With fires waxing and waning and running up and down the mountainsides on both sides of the valley over the next two weeks, one fire came within several kilometres of jumping into Banff National Park.

Everyone knew then that if it did, no amount of human effort could have stopped it from rolling into the park’s townsite like a runaway train.

It was, as some Parks Canada fire fighters still call it, “The Holy S— Fire.” Each time Kubian put a senior official from Ottawa or Calgary into a helicopter to see how quickly the fire was spreading, the reaction was always the same, no matter how politically correct the person: “Holy s—!”

In the wake of this week’s catastrophic forest fire in Slave Lake where 7,000 people had to be evacuated, and at least a third of the town was destroyed, Mike Flannigan says we’ve been extremely lucky that no civilian lives have been lost in a forest fire in Canada for quite some time.

“Part of it’s been luck, but a lot of it has to do with our forest fire management strategy here in Alberta,” says Flannigan, a professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta and a senior research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. “I would not be overstating it in saying that this is one of the best in the world.”

That said, Flannigan doubts that we’re going to be as fortunate in the future if ways are not found to adapt to the new model that is unfolding in the boreal forest.

Most firefighters are convinced they’re seeing bigger, hotter fires that are burning longer, moving faster and behaving in unpredictable ways.

Studies by Flannigan and scientists from other research centres such as NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences indicate that we could see a 100-per cent increase or a doubling in forest fires in the future as temperatures rise and lightning strikes rise.

“It could get scary,” he says. “One only needs to look at what happened in Russia last year to appreciate what we might be facing in Canada.”

During that hot dry summer in Russia, hundreds of forest and peatland fires in dozens of regions of the country, along with the heat wave, killed thousands of people and shrouded most of the country in smoke.

The total damage is estimated to be $15 billion.

Flannigan has the face of an academic, the physique of a runner and the mind of a math teacher. He likes to use numbers to make his case. And he does a good job of it.

“Each year, there are approximately 9,000 fires in Canada,” he says.

“Two million hectares of forests are burned.

“Thirty-five per cent of the fires are started by lightning.

“Sixty-five per cent are started by humans.

“Lightning accounts for 85 per cent of the forests that are burned.

“We spend $800 million on forest-fire management.

“On average, 10 communities and 5,500 people are evacuated each year.”

The point? “This is already an unusual year and it could get worse. No one can say whether this summer will be a harbinger of things to come. Who knows? We may see it rain for the rest of the summer like it did last year. But our models suggest that we’re going to see more lightning and warmer weather in the future. That’s going to be the challenge.”

Even though lightning is responsible for only a third of the fires in Canada, they are the ones that trouble fire fighters the most. Invariably lightning strikes more than once in a thunderstorm.

The clusters of fires that result usually occur in remote regions where they are difficult to detect and expensive to attack.

This is important because contrary to what most people think when they see water bombers being dispatched to attack a fire, there’s not a lot anything can be done to put out an inferno once it gets to a certain size.

Add in strong winds, high temperatures and a sufficient amount of fuel on the ground and you get what some fire fighters call an “ABC” burn. “A” stands for Armchair. “B” stands for binoculars and “C” is for the can of beer that you bring along so you can sit down in the chair, drink beer and watch the fire burn from a distance. The humour in that may be dark, but the reality is there is nothing else that can be done.

Flannigan agrees. “When a fire gets to a certain size, dropping buckets of water from water bombers is like spitting into a campfire. All you can practically do is attack it from the perimeters so as to keep it from spreading.”

More often than not, this is almost impossible to do quickly -as this week’s fire at Slave Lake demonstrated.

Some fires such as one that Parks Canada’s Steve Otway was fighting in Wood Buffalo in 1981 galloped along at 12 km/h.

As near as the Slave Lake fire came to being a total disaster, most people have no clue how close the Kootenay fire and two others like it in the Rockies that summer came to burning down Banff and Jasper.

The Syncline fire in Jasper had been burning for some time before it threatened to jump into the into the Athabasca valley. In a textbook case of firefighting, Steve Otway, Dave Smith and their colleagues dropped some fuel on an area known as the Belt, Buckle and Bowl of Syncline Ridge on July 28 to clear trees and other combustibles. That was done to prevent the fire from reaching the point where it could threaten Miette hot springs and Pocahontas.

While the risky manoeuvre worked, the situation became critical again on Aug. 1 when an approaching cold front threatened to bring the fire down to the Yellowhead Highway.

Cold fronts can be bad news for firefighters because they bring all kinds of inflows and outflows of air that push fires in unpredictable directions.

Dave Smith, the forest fire manager in Jasper, admitted to being nervous about Otway’s plan to drop 28 barrels of gelled fuel onto the forest above Talbot Lake in an effort to keep it from marching down the Yellowhead Highway towards Hinton.

Heads would have rolled if that had happened. But the strategy worked just as the models suggested.

Around the same time, Rick Kubian and his crew were facing a similar challenge when the fire in Kootenay took a spectacular run towards Banff, moving at a rate of two km/h. “From the air,” recalls Kubian, “it looked like big orange smile moving down the valley. It was behaving in a way that made it too dangerous for us to put crews down on the ground.”

No amount of water, chemical retardants or manpower was going to slow this one down.

The only thing that could be done to prevent it from jumping into Banff was to light a backfire 15 kilometres ahead of it and burn all the fuel that stood in its path.

Computer models that help formulate firefighting manoeuvres like this suggest that ignition should take place only when the winds are blowing 15 km/h or slower. The plan also requires a number of helicopters to be on hand in case the fire gets away on them.

This can be tricky at the best of times. But in the mountains where winds can easily change, it’s almost a gamble.

Right about the time Kubian and his team were thinking of doing this, the fire situation in Revelstoke was heightening to emergency levels, and a prescribed burn that got away from firefighters in the Bow Valley overtook a power line that provided electricity to the Banff townsite.

As a result, the decision was made at Parks Canada firefighting headquarters in Calgary to send all of Kootenay’s heavy helicopters and three of their five medium-sized ones to deal with the new emergencies.

There was, however, another problem that day.

The winds up at the pass were gusting beyond the 15 km/h limit, up to 27 km/h at times, so the chances of their backburn getting away on the crews were significantly higher.

Kubian and fire specialists Jeff Weir and Rob Walker knew they would be damned if they lit a backfire that got away on them and damned if they didn’t and allowed the oncoming blaze to jump into Banff.

Rob Walker, the forest fire and vegetation specialist in Kootenay at the time, says the fire was the defining “I’ll never forget that day. It was like a tailgate party.

Michel Boivin, the superintendent, was on hand, and we came over and gave him the bad news. We also told him that we were better off risking failure than letting this thing come to us. You could tell he was nervous.

We were lucky because Michel had a background in forest-fire management and he had seen what had happened with the Mount Shanks fire in 2001 what could happen here in the Rockies. To his credit, he gave us the go-ahead.”

(The Mount Shanks fire, a major blaze in Kootenay National Park, began as a prescribed burn and was then hit by lightning.)

Mike Flannigan says he knows of very few fire managers who would have made a call like that in those conditions.

“It was a gutsy decision,” he says. “It may well have saved the town of Banff and most of the forest in between.”

While there are very good models that forest fighters use to attack a fire, there is a great deal about fires that are not so well understood.

Some forest fires produce so much energy that they create their own clouds and weather. These are called pyrocumulonimbus clouds. Occasionally, they result in hail, lightning, extreme winds and in rare cases tornadoes.

Others such as two that Rick Kubian saw in Wood Buffalo National Park in 1984 defied description.

At the time, Kubian and Weir were checking out a 10,000-hectare blaze that was raging several kilometres away from another fire that was four times larger.

“The fires did not connect. But at one point, we could see the two columns of clouds come together.

It was wild. It looked like they were dancing in this big swirl of black. Had we been able to stick around to see how it turned out, we would have. But even though we were several kilometres away, the helicopter was getting bounced around so badly that we had to bug out.”

During the Kootenay fire of 2003, Rob Walker watched in disbelief as a fire turned a slide patch of alders and other deciduous vegetation into a pile of ash.

“Traditionally, we rely on slide paths to stop or slow a fire. But this one was burning so hot, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had burned a pile of rock. It was unnerving.”

Like Kubian, Otway and other fire fighting experts, Flannigan has no doubt that existing resources and traditional fire fighting strategies will be insufficient in dealing with the fire regime we’ll be facing in the future.

This thinking is nothing new. Most fire fighting managers realized how taxed they were back in 2003 when, at one point, there were 43 helicopters and nearly 500 people from Parks Canada, the Canadian Forest Service, the provinces and private contract firms fighting fires that burned 150,000 hectares in Kootenay, Glacier, Revelstoke, Banff, Jasper and Wood Buffalo national parks.

Because of the huge fire that was threatening the town of Kelowna that summer, air power was in such short supply that vintage planes and aging pilots were brought in from the United States.

It all could have ended much worse than it did had Ontario and Quebec not had a wet summer. Manpower and machinery from those provinces were absolutely critical in fighting these blazes.

“In the future, pretty much everyone agrees that fire management agencies will have to balance protection of communities and other values at risk with the ecological benefits of fire to the landscape,” says Flannigan

“This will mean that the public will have to accept fire on the landscape in a managed way to help avoid fire in an uncontrolled setting. Parks Canada has been pioneering this approach for years.”

Kubian couldn’t agree more.

“Most of us know that the answer is not to buy more fire engines,” he says, making reference to the fact that more money is not entirely the answer.

“We’ve got to find new and better ways of managing fires. That may mean more Fire Smart programs, more prescribed burns or altering the fire landscape in different ways.

“I’m not sure we have all the answers, but everything we’ve learned from the past tells us that we can’t leave it up to Mother Nature to decide where forest fires are going to and how they’re going to behave.”

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