Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Wildfire Week
Dry lightning: Part 2

April 8, 2021
By Jade Portwood

Topics

A typical day on a Penticton Initial Attack Wildfire base has turned chaotic as an unforeseen dry lightning storm dances its way up the Okanagan Valley, igniting dry timber. Precious seconds tick by as seven Initial Attack crews disperse in trucks and helicopters to catch fires in their infancy.  The base is eerily still and quiet, gone the laughter and chatter of busy firefighters. Half-mopped floors and abandoned lunches show they were gone in a hurry. Inside the wildfire base headquarters, there are signs of life. Wildfire officers are busy coordinating crews and triaging fires.

Calls to BC Wildfire crews outside the Penticton zone have been made. Initial Attack, Rapattack, and Unit crews from across the province collect their gear. Rapattack crews are used in areas hard to reach by foot or truck. They bravely rappel out of helicopters with spinning rotors above and fire below. Unit crews, who you’re going to call when it comes to big fires, have more pumps, more hoses, and more strong backs. They aren’t summoned for mere campfires, and they take their role seriously. Large fires turn into the “Fire Olympics” as Unit crews from across British Columbia compete in events. Who can haul the most gear the furthest? Who can put in the most hand guards the fastest? Go to any base in British Columbia and you will find elite-level athletes still chasing the rush of competition.

With limited personnel, wildfire officers make the difficult choice on where to send their badly outnumbered crews. The number of fires is growing by the hour, and the zone has only 21 firefighters at their disposal. How strange it is to call in a fire, see the column piercing the warm blue sky, and be told to leave it.

Fires burning in the cascades are inside the National Park and will be left for now. Fires have been suppressed in British Columbia for 100 years. The parks are littered with dead blow-down and are overcrowded with juvenile growth. Fires here will be good for the forests and wildlife. By opening up the canopy and releasing valuable nutrients from the forest floor, fire will stimulate new growth and rid disease here. Even species, such as the lodgepole pine, require fire to reproduce. Their seeds are encased in a hard shell and cannot be released until an intense fire melts the resin holding the shell together. The fires in Naramata are of more concern as they burn just east of the township.

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Joel Rudyk and I stand twenty feet from the creeping fire’s edge as the humming sound of the helicopter disappears completely. The “Rank 3” fire, identified by its moderately vigorous and organized flame front, is creating an almost perfect semi-circle as it spreads uphill away from the jagged rocky shelf which borders the KVR. The dynamited section creates a trench through the mountain side and is stopping the fire from spilling downhill to Naramata.

The lightning tree, the unlucky recipient of a gigajoule of electricity, stands in the middle of the semi-circle. It wears the familiar candy cane ribbon scar down the length of its trunk. Splinters decorate the ground below it, now totally engulfed. What a sight it would have been to witness the event. The thought quickly vanishes as I kick at a piece of shrapnel that violently exploded off the giant ponderosa pine. The ponderosa species have also adapted to fire in the Okanagan. It grows a thick bark, which shields it from low-intensity fires. This monster should be no worse for wear as the fire has only burnt at its feet.

We make our way to the fire’s edge. With no water to knock the flaming border down, we will have to dig hand guard. Luckily, the fire is protected from the wind and isn’t running at a pace we can’t match. Joel and I are up for the challenge and are perhaps a little happy we don’t have unlimited water and hoses to give us an unfair advantage in the fight. Joel’s age doesn’t reflect his work ethic at the tender age of 44. He is yet to lose a hike up the side of a mountain with firefighters half his age panting at his heels.

Joel’s Pulaski makes the first crack into the soil at the southern most part of the fire. The ground is rocky up here, a guard digger’s worst nightmare. Down in the valley in lower elevation, a quick swipe of a Pulaski pulls a clean chunk of earth away from what was once sandy lake bottom. The sandy ground is “dreamy guard digging.”  Kilometres of guard can be excavated with minimal effort; you might even catch a firefighter smile during the back-breaking work with digging.

Up here, it’s just the opposite. Every second swing, I hit rock, sending vibrations up my arms and down my spine. It’s comparable to the unpleasant sensation of hitting a shot off the heel of my golf club, a feeling I know all too well. We stand downhill with our toes pointing towards Naramata and the 800-foot-deep Okanagan Lake. So much water in the distance is a tease.

In less dire situations, our helicopter would have dropped a few hundred gallons on the fire, leaving a swampy mess in minutes. The machine left us in a hurry.  Having eyes in the sky with so many fires is the number one priority. The machine will drop ribbon on access points for crews in trucks, spot infrastructure at risk, and look for new starts.

I dig guard 10 feet north of Joel, my back hurting already. The misfit match of a three-foot Pulaski and a six-foot-three-inch body are exaggerated even more as I reach for the ground that slopes away from me. The heat is intense in sections, with flame gaining intensity in different fuels. The lighter fuels, needles and twigs, flash with quick bursts of energy. Your ears feel the heat first and sting. It’s best to bear the sting for a couple more swings so you can move into a cooler section. Putting on the hearing protection and metal mesh visors that are attached to our orange hard hats provide a bit of relief from the heat. This trick wasn’t taught in boot camp, but from seasoned veterans on the fire line.

Although progress is slow, watching the fire hit the scratched earth and stop dead in its tracks is satisfying. Nothing but dark soil and rock remains, the fire triangle missing one of its sides. A spot highly polluted in dry needles persuades the fire over our hand guard. The semi-circle loses its symmetry as we hurry to catch the wayward flame front. (Oh well, it needed a good burn, we decide.)

As the fire dies to the south of us, our escape route is solidified.

The “black” can be a firefighter’s best friend. The fire won’t burn here again, the scorched earth providing a safe haven for Joel and I in case the fire picks up and we need to abandon the head of the fire. Approaching the mid section of the fire, a fallen tree stretches from the middle of the fire twenty feet into the dry, unburned fuel. Our Pulaski’s are no help here as the fire is running up the trunk to leap our guard, spoiling our plans.

Joel sprints to our gear cache and grabs his Husqvarna 390 chainsaw. The 28-inch bar and sharp teeth look hungry. The orange body of the chainsaw shows its years in service and proudly wears the lettering “H54 Alpha,” Joel’s call sign. Joel has been wielding the machine for over 20 years. Their acquaintance is less formal and regulated than when I was introduced to the saw. New operating guidelines have rookie sawyers in the classroom and closely watched by certified fallers. Only after hundreds of hours and testing can you fall a tree on your own.

Joel tells stories of him being handed a saw on his first day and falling by lunch. Sink or swim. Logging is the most dangerous job in Canada. I don’t mind the baby steps.

After three tugs on the pull cord, the saw pops and roars. During the quick ascend up the hill and back, the fire has travelled up the tree a foot from where the first cut needs to be made. Joel drives the saw into the bark. The saw whines and makes short work of the downed tree. The flames lick at Joel and the saw. It’s an impressive sight. Joel and the tree are the only distinguishable objects in the now darkening forest. The bouncing flicker of light adds a wavy filter to the spectacle.

I’m tired. I lean on my Pulaski, giving it as much weight as I can, and enjoy the view.

Perpendicular to the ground, Joel makes two cuts four feet apart. He stops just before the ground so we can easily roll the section free and direct it into the fire. There isn’t much time to celebrate or catch our breath as the fire is pushing north of the cut-up spruce tree. I swipe the sweat from my brow. My red shirt now shows the usual sooty and salty look of a hard day’s work for a wildfire firefighter. My hands, still soft from winter vacation, are now blistering. It’s best to harden them up early in the season. I just say no to the leather gloves in my pocket.

The hot sun is now completely lost to the west. Our head lamps provide some light. Sparks fly from our Pulaski’s, the ground still rocky. The coolness of the night slows the fire down and our bodies are too less enthusiastic to finish the job. The sound of our Ford F-550 approaching on the KVR encourages us.

Ryan Sutcliffe has arrived with hoses, water, and food. The hard part is over as we climb down the embankment to meet him. Ryan shares his knowledge on the chaos ensuing up and down the valley as we brag about our heroic day between mouthfuls of burgers and fries.

We make short work putting in the hose lay and put enough water on the fire to keep it at bay over night. The 350 gallons from our truck is more than enough. Joel checks in with fire center as we roll out. He picks up the radio, depresses the “press the talk” button, and broadcasts over the repeater channel.

“Fire Center, this is Hotel-54”

“Go ahead Hotel-54,” says a friendly dispatcher.

“You can check Hotel-54 leaving fire K51249 en route to Penticton…the fire is 100 per cent hand guarded and is in the mop-up stage. Talk to you in two hours or on good roads.”

“Copy that, Fire Centre clear.”

On the drive home, we see that other crews haven’t been as lucky. Still at high elevation at a clearing, we stop and pile out of the truck’s cab. The valley looks like a bombarded war zone. Just across the lake above Peachland, the entire mountain side is on fire. It vibrates like a huge neon sign in a dark, forgotten pub. The fire storm flows like lava down the mountain, disappearing into the lake. Traffic on Highway 97 is at a standstill as embers ignite fuel on both sides of the four-lane highway. To the east, barren Okanagan Mountain Park is on fire to our disbelief and, just below us, another fire is threatening Naramata. We are now in reach to hear the radio chatter of the crews working on it.

We are done for the night. We are to clear eight hours and return to our fire in the morning.  The dry lightning storm leaves 28 fires in its path in less than twenty-four hours. The record-breaking summer has just begun for British Columbia and its wildfire crews. Plenty of time to build calluses.


After 3 years with BC wildfire, Jade was hired by Penticton Fire and Rescue. He will be finished with his probation in April of this year. Before a career in fire, he studied and played hockey in Alaska, Scotland, and New Zealand.