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Dry Lightning: B.C. exercise reveals strengths and weakness in urban interface planning

Another warm, sunny summer day in Vancouver. With Labour Day approaching, it has been one of the best summers in memory, with no appreciable rain for more than two months. The fire hazard in the forests of Vancouver’s North Shore is extreme.

September 18, 2008 
By Paul Dixon

Firefighters establish a 1,200-foot interface sprinkler system on the BC Hydro right-of-way.

Another warm, sunny summer day in Vancouver. With Labour Day approaching, it has been one of the best summers in memory, with no appreciable rain for more than two months. The fire hazard in the forests of Vancouver’s North Shore is extreme. As the sun rises, clouds covering the peaks of the North Shore mountains build to form massive thunderheads. Thunder is heard echoing in the mountain valleys for some time before lightning becomes visible as the clouds swirl. After one spectacular bolt of lightning, smoke is seen rising from the heavily forested slopes of Grouse Mountain. The District of North Vancouver Fire Rescue Service is inundated by 911 calls from across Greater Vancouver. Response is immediate, with the first engine company on scene in minutes. It is readily apparent to those first arriving firefighters that what they are looking at is beyond their capabilities and expertise. Even as the duty chief is still en route to the scene, the call has gone out to Metro Vancouver Watershed Protection and Coastal Fire Centre for wildland firefighters.

There is no actual fire, as this is the preamble to Operation Dry Lightning, a full-scale functional exercise held on June 11, 2008, to test the capabilities of those agencies that would respond to an urban interface fire: District of North Vancouver; District of North Vancouver Fire Rescue Service; Metro Vancouver Watershed Protection; provincial Ministry of Forests & Range Protection firefighters; B.C. Ambulance Service; RCMP; Grouse Mountain Resorts; BC Hydro; North Shore Emergency Management Office; North Shore Rescue; and many more.


DNVFRS Deputy Chief Tony Delmonico with ortho photo and map of exercise location.


The District of North Vancouver occupies 160 square kilometres on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. Fully 65 per cent of the district is wilderness, much of which is steep, mountainous terrain within large parks such as Mount Seymour Provincial Park, Lynn Headwaters and Grouse Mountain, along with two of Greater Vancouver’s watersheds, Seymour and Capilano. The 85,000 residents live in 20 per cent of the area, with many of the neighbourhoods having extensive green belts and urban parks with mature, second-growth trees. The geography is challenging, with three major fast-flowing rivers, Capilano, Lynn and Seymour, cutting the district with their steep canyons. Add to this a large number of smaller creeks and streams and compound it with the Trans-Canada Highway running through the middle of the community. The result is that each of the District of North Vancouver’s five fire halls is virtually isolated in its own neighbourhood, with access from any one to the others restricted to one or two easily congested routes.

Operation Dry Lightning grew of out two significant events, Firestorm 2003 and the subsequent Filmon Report, and the 2005 Berkley mudslide in North Vancouver. The District of North Vancouver formed a natural hazard management program, which quickly identified the most significant threats to the municipality – landslide, debris flow/flood, earthquake, interface fire and extreme weather. Fiona Dercole is the section manager–public safety for the district. “Once we understand the hazards and associated risks, we prioritize our mitigation and preparedness activities,” she says.

B.A Blackwell & Associates, in concert with District of North Vancouver arborist Mark Brown, authored the District of North Vancouver’s community wildfire protection plan. The plan, tabled in April 2007, provided historical background, an assessment of current hazards and a number of recommendations to mitigate risk. Historically, much of the area was logged of mature cedar and fir in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in a second-growth forest comprising alder and hemlock, with some cedar and fir. Blackwell compiled a database of wildfire starts in the district based on provincial information dating back to 1950. In total, there were 186 fires, with 76 per cent caused by humans and the remainder started by lightning. There were 15 fires in 1963, the most in one year. Of the 186 fires, just three were larger than four hectares, with the largest being in 1967 at 34.3 hectares. The most important point in the report was the significant amount of fuel loading in the interface area. This led to the Grousewoods fuel treatment pilot program, funded by the province, to mitigate the wildfire risk by removing ladder fuels. The program is under the direction of Brown, the arborist.

The release of the Blackwell Report was followed by a tabletop exercise in June 2007 as the lead up for the full-scale, functional exercise. Planning such an exercise requires a significant investment in time and resources, which are in short supply in most organizations. A joint emergency preparedness program grant was applied for and upon approval, consultant Margaretha Lundh of Global Consulting was engaged to spearhead the planning.

“My job is to oversee the big picture as well as the details,” she says, “make sure that as many agencies and organizations are represented as possible, not just first responders. We create the event timeline, meet as a large group, as well as with the individual agencies. There were at least six major group meetings in the planning phase and many, many smaller meetings with the individual agencies.” 

For Fiona Dercole, the public safety manager, “it was very important that we allow the individual agencies within the larger group to test their own, specific emergency plans and responsibilities within the framework of the master plan.  As an example, for the North Vancouver RCMP detachment, it meant actually doing a test of their neighbourhood evacuation plan by having members going door to door in the affected area.” 

Metro Vancouver Watershed Protection (right) confers with a provincial Ministry of Forests firefighter.

The exercise plan called for a significant air component, both rotary and fixed wing, but Mother Nature hadn’t read the plan. The morning was heavily overcast with a light drizzle, which grounded the air component. Shortly after 9 a.m., the exercise started in the parking lots at the base of Grouse Mountain, with a large contingent of observers from agencies around the region and the local media. The alarm was sounded and the first-in apparatus responded from DNVFRS hall 3 on Montroyal Boulevard, sizing up the situation upon arrival and making the request for Metro Vancouver and provincial Ministry of Forests firefighters. The plan called for Metro’s initial attack (IA) crew to respond by helicopter from its base at the Seymour Watershed and then have that helicopter begin a bucket attack while the rest of the crew drove to the scene in its wildland apparatus. Now, instead of a five-kilometre line of sight helicopter flight, crews faced a 20-kilometre drive over municipal roads and provincial highways. The provincial Ministry of Forests would have dispatched its IA crew by helicopter from its base in Squamish, with any required support in the form of a road response over the infamous Sea to Sky highway. Further provincial support would have included helicopter dispatched from the Coastal Fire Centre for increased bucketing, along with a bird dog aircraft followed by an aerial tanker from Abbotsford.

DNVFRS Assistant Chief Curtis Bremner responded as the initial incident commander, with Deputy Chief Victor Penman responding as the event ramped up. Bremner was initially the IC, with command passing to Penman upon his arrival. As Metro Vancouver and MOF arrived on scene, they were brought in and a unified command structure established, with Penman as IC. At the same time, the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated in the North Shore Emergency Management Office (NSEMO) facility. For the first hour or so, communications between IC and the EOC were sporadic, the result of spotty cell coverage and a dropped radio link. Fortunately, members of the North Shore Amateur Radio Club had been included in the exercise as part of the NSEMO support group and were able to provide communications support as required.

The three groups of firefighters worked well together. MOF and Metro took responsibility for the ground attack on the fire, while DNVFRS deployed its wildfire sprinkler system along the natural fire break afforded by the BC Hydro right of way and staged additional apparatus in the adjoining neighbourhood that would be in the line of any windblown embers.

“We learned a lot from actually sending members door to door”, said Cpl. Murray Day of the North Vancouver RCMP, after members of conducted a real-time evacuation alert exercise. “They only got to about half of the residences we hoped to cover. A large number of people were at home during the day and we had to take the extra time to talk to them about what was happening. In a real event we wouldn’t have been stopping to talk as we did other than to say “get out.”

To maintain a high degree of realism, an actual fire had been set several hundred metres into the forest under the watchful eye of district foresters. Once crews moved into action, the fire was quickly extinguished by the MOF and Metro crews.

The weather may have grounded the helicopters and aerial tankers for the exercise, but there was also a realization that these resources may not be available even on the sunniest of days depending on operational requirements elsewhere in the region or across the province. The effort that went into planning the event along with the time and resources the participating agencies dedicated was as important, if not more important, than the actual event.

“We’ve worked with Metro and MOF in the past”, said Deputy Chief Penman, “but we learned so much more about each other in putting this together. Understanding each other’s responsibilities and capabilities as we do now gives us all a much stronger working relationship. The respect we have for each other’s expertise puts us all at ease when working together.  It’s all about the relationships.”

For more information on Operation Dry Lightning, contact section manager– public safety Fiona Dercole,; district arborist, Mark Brown,; or Deputy Fire Chief Victor Penman,

Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.  He can be contacted at

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