Local firefighters kept busy with monumental season

This summer was monumental for forest fires in the Kootenays.

Chris Mansbridge

Castlegar News

This summer was monumental for forest fires in the Kootenays.

The southeast corner of the province had a total of 272 fires: 217 of those being lightning strikes and the rest suspected human involvement.

This left 6,151 hectares (12,300 soccer fields worth) of burnt timber. The hazy skies featured air-tankers flying from Castlegar Airport en route to dumping fire retardant and helicopters hauling buckets of water from the Arrow Lakes to the adjacent burning hillsides. But machines can’t put fires out here. What does the job are the on-the-ground crews who work endless hours to contain and extinguish the hundreds of wildfires.

Although it was an extremely hot summer in the Kootenays — drying out the forest — what proved to be one of the biggest challenges for fire suppression wasn’t the conditions here, but the ones in Northern B.C..

“Usually, the (fire) season starts in the north and moves south, and this season, the North remained very active,” said Fire Information Officer Fanny Bernard. “Unlike in the past where we let fires burn in the north, there are now much more values, such as oil and gas infrastructures, that need to be protected from wildfire.”

The province shares all its fire suppression resources, and the high demand up north meant local ground crews would be lean on the supplies they needed unless the planning was perfect.

The remaining available local Ministry of Forests crew members were mobilized, along with crews from other regions of the province, and local contractors.

Not much of the terrain around Castlegar has roads leading there, nor is it accessible with machinery such as excavators or bulldozers.

This means most of the creation of fire guards is done by hand, after hover-exiting crews out of helicopters. Fortunately, the crews available were able to achieve this incredibly difficult task, resulting in the successful containment of all concerning fires around the zone. That includes the Slocan Park fire, which put locals on evacuation alert.

“The crews are the ones that put out the fire, even though the air support plays a large role in suppression. Once the fire is cooled down or its spread is retarded through the use of air-support, it still needs to be aggressively attacked by crews with water and by digging up hot spots. Fire breaks are put in with chainsaws, pulaskis and sometimes heavy equipment to contain the fire.”

Bernard speaks from experience. The former Kootenay Lake Initial Attack fire fighter spent seven years extinguishing fires in the region. She fondly remembers the helicopter flights to remote areas to camp at high elevations in order to put out a burn.

 

“Though the work is hard and dangerous, it’s this experience that makes the co-workers become great friends. Crews get pretty tight and it’s one of my favourite aspects of the job.”