Forest Fires: 2003

BC Premier Gordon Campbell has ordered a provincial state of emergency to free-up resources in order to fight the province’s massive forest-fire problems. As of Saturday August 2, 2003, there were 352 active fires burning in the province, bringing the year-total to 1120 fires which have, so far, consumed 59422 hectares of BC’s forests (1). Forests are not the only things being consumed by flames in BC; communities across BC’s interior have lost dozens of homes, businesses and major employers (saw-mills). According to the CBC, “the town of Barriere lost 25 houses, four businesses and its major employer – the local sawmill” and “60 homes in Louis Creek were destroyed, along with the community’s sawmill” (2). Approximately 10000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes and many of the province’s highways are closed due to the fires.

Thousands of BC residents who are not directly affected by the flames are suffering indirectly as a result of them. As of Saturday August 2, 2003, BC Hydro reported 1720 residences without power due to the fires (3); however, the CBC reports that “[one] fire has caused a power outage to 8,000 people over a massive area” (4). Details are sketchy and often conflicting, as reporting agencies are having difficulty obtaining prompt, reliable facts from an area isolated by flames. The CBC also reports that “Telus is sending out crews to start restoring phone lines to about 5,000 customers who have lost service because of the fires” (4). Estimates vary from days to weeks before power/phone service may be restored. Meanwhile, the fires continue to burn and threaten to devour more public resources and private assets.

My mother, who lives in McBride, approximately 250 kilometers north of Barrier, is presently without power, but is lucky enough to live on the side of the street that still has phone service. Yesterday my father returned to his home in Penny, located about 110 kilometers west of McBride, only to find a BC (5) crew loading firefighting equipment into a net for helicopter long-line into a fire that was burning in the mountains north of his home. It seems that most residents of BC are being affected by this year’s fire season”?either directly or indirectly.

I have a unique insight into forest fires and fighting them. Those of you who have previously read my column will know that I was a member of the Northern Initial Helicopter Attack Crews (NIFAC) division of the BC Ministry of Forests from 1984-87. There are several kinds of Initial Attack Crews (6), and NIFAC was (and is) a Helitack crew. “Helitack crews have access to a helicopter and are trained in hover exit. They are deployed to remote locations that are difficult to reach by truck” (6). Watching these fires on the news reawakens my desire for those days and reaffirms the respect that I have for those who continue to fight the flames. The work can be grueling and exhausting in the most extreme and dangerous conditions; or it can be monotonous, horribly boring, and repetitive”?waiting for a fire-call that never comes or mopping up the remnants of a smoldering moss-mound.

I made several life-long friendships during my years as a firefighter, and many of those friends remain in the service of the Ministry of Forests to this day. Some are out there right now battling flames to save people and property; others have advanced to the point where they coordinate logistics provincially. I respect them, wish I could be there with them, and hope that they will soon prevail over the massive challenges that they are presently facing.

To learn more about forest fires and those who fight them, visit the CBC News’ in-depth look at “Fighting Fires” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/indepth/fightingfires/), or the BC Ministry of Forests Protection Branch website (http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/protect/).

Table of Pictures:

Picture 1: Jeff Mackenzie spotting (front) while Wayne Benedict lowers chainsaw equipment from hovering helicopter in 1986.

Picture 2: Wayne Benedict spotting (front) while Paul Prendergast (presently overall supervisor of NIFAC) unbuckles to deplane from hovering helicopter in 1987. Pilot is unknown. Rick Horne is silhouetted behind Paul.

Picture 3: Wayne Benedict spotting Bell 205A-17 helitanker in 1987.

References:
(1) http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/pScripts/Protect/WildfireNews/index.asp?Page=Statistics
(2) http://vancouver.cbc.ca/regional/servlet/View?filename=bc_fires_eleven20030802
(3) http://www.bchydro.com/bch-cgi/outage/outage.cgi?selDistrict=South+Interior&disp
(4) http://vancouver.cbc.ca/regional/servlet/View?filename=bc_fires_eleven20030802
(5) http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/protect/crews/rapattack.htm
(6) http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/protect/crews/initial.htm

Wayne E. Benedict is a Locomotive Engineer at BC Rail and President of the National, Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation and General Workers Union of Canada (CAW) Local 110. He is working toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University.

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