Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2005 Fire

   It was towards the end of May and a week into some unusually hot weather for that time of year.  It was so hot in fact I had decided to drive to town for supplies that afternoon. Normally I wouldn't consider it but the vehicle I had at the time had a good air conditioner and was the only reason I left home that day.
Somewhere on the return trip I stopped to pick up Stevie, who had been working peeling logs for a few days and was looking to catch a ride back home to Rogers Creek.
"Whoa, nice air" he commented, slamming the door and strapping himself in.
   I suppose it was around the 32 km marker on the gravel road a broken up message came from someone on the road over my two way radio. ""
A hundred images went through my mind and I stomped the Yukon into passing gear and Stevie held on with both hands. As we rocketed along the gravel road hitting the high spots the reception improved and I was able to talk with Art Frank who had been driving by and noticed smoke on the hillside across the road from the hot spring. Well that put my mind at ease some as a fire on the hillside was better than one on my foundation, but somewhere you don't want a fire getting started is on private land as you can be liable for costs.
As we work our way down the valley in certain spots we are able to see smoke in the distance, which doesn't help my blood pressure one bit. In no time at all I skidded up next to Art's truck and get my first on scene look. There is heavy smoke and crackling in the area of the pictographs and was rapidly spreading up the steep mountainside. Optimistic as hell, I figured we could still get a handle on the situation and spun the Yukon around and headed back to the lodge, gathering up all the shovels and fire fighting tools I had as well as a couple of metal canister squirt cans that seemed to take an excruciatingly long time to fill from the garden hose.
   When I got back at the fire there had been some people from down the road at Skatin' arrived with hoes and shovels after hearing the news. I spread the tools around and shoved one of the squirt cans at a surprised and unenthusiastic Nick, whom immediately realized he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. 
I took the other can and shouted "Follow me!", then charged off leaping and running directly for the growing inferno and disappeared into the smoke. I felt the only hope was to get the pitifully small amount of water in the extinguishers to the head, or front of the fire, as fast as we could, then with a coordinated effort slow the flames a little and then the crew with the shovels, hoes and rakes would arrive and get on the trouble spots. At least that was the idea until I happened to look back in mid leap to notice there was no one behind me.
   So on I stumbled up this steep bloody mountainside, over smoking  burnt ground, on a hot day, and packing a 4 gallon pump can that gets heavier with each aching uphill step and I'm having hard time not stepping on my tongue. 
There was a lot at stake, and the stress of a situation that could get badly out of hand. 
I kept pressing on up the hillside trying to get ahead of the flame front. I could see it up head about to break over a narrow ledge it looked like, possibly it would slow it enough for me to get there. By the time I reached the edge of the narrow bench I was huffing and puffing and sweating and swearing only to find the flames had hit the steep slope and were picking up momentum. I could see it was beyond the squirt can stage, and we were going to have to bring in the pro's.  I squirted about half the can of water down my throat, and dumped the rest then started back down the rocky hillside, which was a big improvement over the uphill route I had just taken. I began to meet up with some of the younger guys, hacking and hoeing at hot spots here and there in an organized manner. 
"Going to have to call in the troops" I told them on the way by.
 I broke out of the smoke onto the road coughing to see quite a crowd has gathered, with some campers from the hot spring, and area residents coming to give a hand from as far away a Tipella, 30 miles away at the head of Harrison Lake.  I raced back to the lodge and walked out into an open area with the satellite phone and called the BC Wildfire Line.
There had been a fire on the property once before under my watch, and I knew how things would unfold.
   In a few hours several forestry officials arrived asking all kinds of questions which were followed awhile later with several truck loads of crew  from the fire base in Pemberton, comprised of mostly first nation fire fighters. This was their first call of the season. The hot spring was the seasons first call for another crew 11 years before, after I had been burning some slash piles around here (with a permit) in 1994 and lit half the country on fire and had to 'call in the troops' then, costing many thousands of dollars. But that is another story.
 I showed the pumper crew the way over to a suitable site at the river for their intake and pump.
"The same place we used last time!" I told them.
They get all set up in an hour or so, with no little amount of unwanted assistance from me. There is a main hose stretched from the river across the airstrip clearing and across the road right of way to the base of the hill, where there is a splitter that feeds several fire hoses that go up the mountain side. It had been late afternoon when it was called in, so it was after dark when the crew finished setting up and I figure the serious fire fighting was about to start.
They all piled into their vehicles and drive off. 
"We'll be back out at eight tomorrow." the fire boss said.
   That night myself and some people from the campsite sat out on the airstrip and had a ringside seat for the spectacular 'fireworks' on the mountainside. It is impressive to experience, but difficult to watch. You can hear the groan  of huge trees falling, and boulders that come free, crashing their way downhill.
Flames reach far into the sky, and ash rains down upon us.
   I was out on the airstrip at sun up the next day expecting to see most of the mountain on fire, but the cool of the night had damped things enough that it hadn't really spread much over night, and is still contained within  the property boundaries. Soon I could hear the sound of a helicopter arriving and they did a few tight circles over the fire before setting down in the front yard. They mentioned they had concerns about the notorious wind from down valley we can get, which could whip the fire up, sending it into the endless tracts of adjacent crown forest. Soon the ground crew returned and the pump master fired up his machine, and the guys headed up the hill. Other helicopters began to arrive, setting up a fire base out front, with ambulance, fuel truck and support personnel. Bringing the number to 3 helicopters, plus the smaller Bell 206 the officials used. 
I could see the cost was adding up pretty quick, and my palms began to sweat.

 Picking a monsoon bucket up on a long line
 A short hop over to the river to fill it. No small feat in a fast moving current.

Another short hop to the fire and drop. They could do 6 minute cycle times from the river to the fire and back, putting thousands of litres/gallons on site.

On day two there was a real concern about projected high winds in the afternoon. I was informed a decision was made to put the water bombers on standby at the Conair base in Abbotsford.
At mid-day, the planes were ordered to fire up and head for lot 1747.
Things were really starting to add up fast, I hope they take plastic.
It takes the trio of Firecat tankers probably 45 minutes flying time to get here. Meanwhile, ground crews are brought down and the area cleared.  
The 'bird dog' plane arrives first, he has a good look at the situation and the best way for the bombers to attack the fire. The droning twin engine tankers orbit over head as the he swoops in passing over the fire showing by example and then the large bombers follow suit in turn.

Firecat water bomber rolling in on target.

The Firecats returned to base to re-fill with retardant and came back a second time to wash the area down. Ground crews moved back in and the bucket equipped helicopters resumed activities.
   The fuel guys and some support crew commented on what a wonderful spot this was to fight a fire from. There is a nice grassy airstrip, with a river right next to the fire, and mentioned how they often don't get to see the actual fire fighting, they usually get stuck at some hot dusty staging area miles from the actual fire. Here they could sit on the bench over at my fire pit with a cool breeze off the river and enjoy the airshow.

  After 4 days the helicopters moved on, leaving the ground crew to mop up. There would be an investigation into how the fire started, and a specialist was brought in from Victoria. There had been concerns over the pictographs (native rock paintings). Once the area was secured myself, a representative from the Inshuckch nation and  forestry official went into the area to see how the pictographs had fared. The moss around them was all charred up when the fire had swept by, but the paintings themselves were unharmed.

  I had to wonder what might have transpired if I had of been home. If I had seen the beginnings of smoke over there, which is likely, it probably could have been handled then with out spending over half a million bucks.
In the end, the fire was termed an accidental start, and no fault of the property owners.
The Douglas fir is a resistant tree, the ground cover comes back quickly, and now, 7 years later, you would hardly know there was a fire on the mountainside.

Photos: Mercedes Poirier

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