FOREST FIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
The summer of 2003 was a difficult one community’s major employer—was
Focus for Canada, as the country dealt with totally destroyed by a huge fire that
This News in Re-
the fallout from SARS in the human ultimately consumed 240 square
examines the population and mad cow in its cattle. A kilometres of forest. Even more horrific
impact of forest further complication for Western was the ferocious wildfire that de-
fires during the Canada was another dry summer, with scended from Okanagan Mountain Park
summer of 2003 on drought conditions in much of British onto the city of Kelowna—a commu-
the province of Columbia and Alberta. Parts of the nity of over 140 000. The fire twice
British Columbia. It
also examines why
Prairies faced a plague of grasshoppers; forced the evacuation of suburban parts
such fires happen Alberta, Manitoba and British Colum- of the city and destroyed over 250
and modern devel- bia also were hit with significant num- homes.
opments in the bers of forest fires. For many residents of the interior of
fighting of major It was the British Columbia fires that British Columbia, the loss of the his-
captured the national imagination. For a toric Kettle Valley Railway trestles in
while it seemed that the entire province the Myra Canyon near Kelowna
Did you know . . . was burning. Not only were there far brought home the tragic impact of the
Firefighters some- more fires than in normal years, but the fire. Almost 100 years old, the trestles
times refer to area burned was also about 10 times the had been constructed to link two Cana-
fighting forest fires average. dian Pacific Railway lines. The 18
as “battling the Many of the fires spread at an almost trestles, each one unique in its design,
dragon” or “bat- unbelievable rate. Dean Newhouse is a were set along a 13-kilometre stretch of
tling the monster”?
pilot for Kelowna Flightcraft. He and the canyon and were part of one of the
his crew travelled regularly between most popular hiking and cycling trails
YV Sections Vancouver and Eastern Canada and in the province. The railway had been
marked with this watched several of the fires develop. abandoned in the 1960s, and the trestles
symbol indicate They watched the Okanagan Mountain themselves deteriorated to the point
content suitable for Park fire near Kelowna as it rapidly where the province threatened to close
grew in size. “The fire had spread them down.
exponentially overnight and was three Hundreds of thousands of dollars in
times the size it was 24 hours ago,” he donations and three years of work by
wrote for The Globe and Mail on hundreds of volunteers restored the
September 4, 2003. “We pulled out our trestles for use by residents and tourists.
calculators and converted hectares to But in early September the same fire
acres and multiplied by three repeatedly that invaded Kelowna changed direc-
to conclude that at the current rate the tion and swept into the canyon. Of the
whole province would be consumed in 18 trestles, 12 were destroyed, two
eight days. We must have made a more were damaged. Only four sur-
mistake. We checked our calculations vived intact.
and all concurred that they were cor- The destruction of the trestles only
rect.” added to the emotional toll taken by the
The fires were no respecters of com- fires in the area. Their destruction
munities. In August, the small village of became a representation of all that was
Louis Creek—and its sawmill, the lost by residents as a result of the nearly
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 34
2500 fires that burned throughout the compensation comes under a federal
province. Their restoration would plan called Disaster Financial Assis-
symbolize all the rebuilding of homes, tance Arrangements. To qualify, a
industries and infrastructure that will be disaster needs to meet certain require-
taking place. Premier Gordon Campbell ments; John Geddes in the September 8,
has insisted that the trestles will be 2003, issue of Maclean’s, describes
rebuilt. The province will work with the some of these requirements. The disas-
federal government and volunteers to ter itself must be both sudden and
ensure that this happens. “For many unforeseeable and must be “severe
people,” he said, “it’s kind of a thera- enough to cost at least $1 dollar [sic] in
peutic thing to be able to contribute to ‘eligible costs’ for every person in the
the rebuilding of these trestles. Over the province where it happens.” The prov-
next few days, we’ll be looking at ways ince can apply for up to 90 per cent of
we can do that” (Vancouver Sun, Sep- this additional cost.
tember 9, 2003). But some things do not qualify.
The trestles, of course, are only a Firefighting is considered a normal
small part of the economic losses provincial expense. Anything that is or
suffered by the province as a result of should have been covered by insurance
the forest fires. In addition to the cost of is not eligible. Small businesses may be
fighting the fires ($545-billion, almost compensated, but big businesses may
10 times the amount budgeted by the not. Evacuations caused by forest fires
province for 2003) is the cost of re- have sometimes received compensation,
building destroyed property. The total as have infrastructure repairs to things
figure may well exceed the $815- like roads and sewer lines.
million spent after the 1997 Red River Negotiations will likely continue for
flood in Manitoba. some time.
The actual costs—environmental, Many residents of British Columbia
emotional and economic—of one of love their forests, and have chosen to
British Columbia’s worst forest-fire live as close to them as possible. Many
seasons have yet to be finalized. Mean- will likely rethink this relationship as a
while, the federal government has result of this summer’s fires, recogniz-
promised relief assistance, but how ing that there is both danger and beauty
much remains an open question. The at the edge of the woods.
1. What made the forest fires in British Columbia so bad?
2. Why was the loss of the Kettle Valley Railway trestles so devastating?
3. What do you think the federal government should do? Why?
4. How might this summer’s experience affect how people in B.C. view their
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 35
FOREST FIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
YV Video Review
1. How many forest fires broke out in B.C. the past summer?
View the video
respond to the 2. What city was most damaged by these fires?
3. What events made the battle especially difficult for local firefighters?
4. How many homes were destroyed in the Kelowna area?
5. How many people were evacuated from their homes?
6. Describe the methods used to battle the “monster” or “ dragon.”
7. Why were the fires so difficult to actually stamp out?
8. What finally helped bring the fires under control?
9. What might be done to reduce forest fires in future?
10. How much did the fires cost the economy of British Columbia?
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 36
FOREST FIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
YV Ravaged Communities
The images that best brought the horror companies, facing a payout estimated at
of British Columbia’s fires home to the over $8-million, will sue him to recover
rest of Canada were those with which their losses.
all could identify. These were the
pictures of the destruction of people’s Jerry and Beth Scherle
homes and livelihoods, of communities Jerry Scherle and his family refused to
evacuated, wounded and destroyed. leave their home in Kelowna when they
These included the evacuation of 770 received their evacuation order, and
people from the Sun Peaks resort area were told by the RCMP that they should
and the total destruction of the village not expect to be rescued if the fire got
of Louis Creek and the sawmill that was out of hand. They bought two large
the community’s employer. The de- water tanks and some fire hose, filled
struction of 250 homes in Kelowna and up their swimming pool, and waited for
the evacuation of one-third of its resi- the blaze.
dents contributed to the horror. The fire, with 120-metre-high flames,
While we could appreciate in the came within one kilometre of their
abstract the sheer size of the country- home. Beth Scherle was convinced they
side devastated by the fires, it was the were going to lose their house. Just
stories of the effects on individual lives when all seemed lost, it rained—for
that brought home their real impact. only a few minutes, but enough to hold
There were tales of foolishness and back the fire and reduce the size of the
heroism, of loss and relief. Here are a flames. They and their home survived.
few that caught the imagination of
reporters across Canada. Ian and Anja Mitchell
The Mitchells run a cattle ranch in
Mike Barre Barriere, about 60 kilometres north of
Mike Barre was the man who started Kamloops. They, too, refused to leave
the summer’s second-largest fire, the their land—refusing two evacuation
McLure-Barriere. An unemployed orders—and saw 180 head of their
prison guard and volunteer firefighter, cattle trapped between spreading fires
Barre started the fire with a cigarette northwest of their spread. To save their
while he was installing a satellite dish at buildings they and several neighbours
the back of his acreage. About 8500 ran irrigation lines to their houses and
people were forced to flee the area. placed lawn sprinklers on the roofs.
Sixty-five homes were destroyed by the While they saved several head of cattle,
fire; Barre’s survived. they were unable to assist others, which
Barre ran to warn his neighbours, and were totally incinerated by the fire.
readily admitted to a fire inspector that
he had caused the blaze. The RCMP has Gerry Zimmermann
not charged him with causing the fire Gerry Zimmermann is Kelowna’s fire
and is currently treating it as an acci- chief, and a man who has become a
dent while their investigation continues. hero to the city residents. Throughout
Barre’s biggest fear is that the insurance the crisis Zimmermann maintained a
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 37
high profile, appearing daily on televi- Rayleigh. In fact, they were setting out
sion and reassuring residents with a the last tables on the day before the
mixture of humour, honesty, and confi- ceremony when a flash forest fire
dence. He was forced to flee his own roared toward the town, forcing the
residence east of the city and lived in entire community of 2800 to evacuate.
the fire hall throughout the crisis. Westman and Horne were forced to
Zimmermann’s firefighters faced leave behind almost all their belongings
great danger on the night when the fire when they fled. A neighbour, however,
burned its way into the southern sub- ensured that Westman took her wedding
urbs of the city, destroying 250 homes. dress as well as those of her brides-
More than 25 firefighters and five maids.
trucks were trapped for four hours in When they arrived safely in
one of the neighbourhoods; among Kamloops, Horne insisted that the
them was Zimmermann’s closest friend. wedding should go ahead as planned.
Fortunately, the fire ultimately burned They chose Riverside Park as the
past the road, and they were able to setting, and a radio station announced
escape. The next day, the chief was the change of plans. At the park, a
overcome by emotion and cried at his second wedding was also taking place;
press conference—resulting from a they tossed a coin with the second
combination of empathy for those who couple to determine the location for the
had lost their homes and relief for his ceremony. The staff of a local restau-
men who had survived great danger. rant prepared the patio for the wedding
reception; music was provided by the
Karen Westman and Al Horne tape deck from an employee’s pickup
Karen Westman and Al Horne were truck. The wedding pictures show
planning to be married in the backyard smoke in the background.
of the Westman family home in
Authorities give evacuation orders when they foresee very real dangers for the
residents of a certain area. During the forest-fire season in British Columbia,
two per cent of the residents under such orders refused to leave their homes—
including two of the above families. How would you describe the behaviour of
people who refuse to go? Are they brave or foolhardy? Should they be forced
by authorities to leave against their will? How might you respond to an evacua-
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 38
YV FORESTFIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
Why B.C. Burned
Writer Rod Mickleburgh, in The Globe drier. Kelowna had the driest summer
and Mail (September 4, 2003), de- on record since rainfall records began
scribed the summer of 2003 as the being kept in 1899. Kamloops, which
worst forest-fire season in 50 years. normally receives about 54 mm of rain
Commentators have identified the in the summer, recorded only 3.4 mm.
causes as both climatic and man-made. Michael Feller, associate professor of
forest sciences at the University of
Global Warming British Columbia, described the process
According to the United Nations World responsible for B.C.’s fires to Nicholas
Meteorological Organization, warming Read of the Vancouver Sun (August 12,
of both the atmosphere and the oceans 2003). A fire starts either through
is increasing the intensity of drought, human carelessness or from a lightning
heat waves, and floods around the strike. Once it has started, however, it
world. Western North America’s grows by feeding on the convection it
droughts are thought to be one result of creates as it feeds on fuel, oxygen and
this global warming and are directly heat. A fire generates energy, which
related to a rise in the Pacific Ocean’s forces hot air up and draws in cool air
surface temperatures. Other evidence to replace it. This creates the convection
exists to show that the climate of B.C. that causes increasingly stronger winds
and Alberta is, indeed, gradually warm- to blow toward the centre of the fire.
ing while the amount of summer pre- Flames heat up nearby trees; once these
cipitation is declining. Evaporation reach the right temperature (200 to 400
during these periods of drought dries degrees Celsius) they literally burst into
out forests and soils; this dryness makes flame. Once a wildfire really gets
them more susceptible to fire. going, it can travel up to 50 kilometres
per hour and be as hot as 800 degrees
While the Prairies have been suffering
from severe drought for four summers, Forest Management Practices
2003 was especially dry for British Forest biologists agree that periodic
Columbia, both on the coast and in the natural fires are necessary to healthy
interior. Coastal Vancouver, which forest development. They conclude that
normally receives about 133 many of our problems with devastating
millimetres of rainfall in the summer fires, like those that roared through B.C.
received only 26.4 mm. Reservoirs this summer, are a direct result of poor
feeding the city’s water supply were forest management practices. They
well below normal, forcing a “Stage 4” point to the regular suppression of too
water conservation order banning all many naturally occurring fires as creat-
lawn sprinkling. Heavy restrictions ing dangerous conditions in both com-
were placed on the use of Stanley Park, mercial forests and in national and
the city’s most famous public park. provincial parks.
The interior, where the fires eventu- The suppression of such fires, writes
ally blazed out of control, was even Reese Halter of Global Forest Science
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 39
(The Globe and Mail, August 7, 2003), forest next to the natural beauty of
Quote means that large amounts of natural Okanagan Mountain Park. Many ex-
“You never heard
debris accumulate as fuel on the forest perts predict that the danger of such
much about these
fires until there floor—resulting in larger fires during fires will only increase as more and
were houses out dry periods. “If left to the cycles of more people choose forested lots on
there. When it’s nature,” he writes, ”west North which to build, failing to realize that the
just trees getting America’s pine forests would be swept risk of fire in such areas is a significant
burned, and no one by fires every 40 to 60 years. But they fact of life.
sees it, it’s not a big
deal. — Gary
have not been left alone. And so, many While there will always be some risk
Barber, forest of the forests that are presently burning in such situations, there are ways of
contractor from are older than 100 years. So there is minimizing them. Michael Clugston,
Kamloops, quoted considerably more fuel loaded in the writing in the July 2003 Canadian
in Maclean’s, woods than would have built up natu- Geographic, lists four ways in which
September 1, 2003
rally.” residents can protect their homes and
Interface Fires 1. Choose your rural location carefully.
Alberta has pre- It was the threats to communities and “Are you beyond the reach of urban
pared a community the destruction of homes—especially in fire and water services? Is a pond or
wildland/interface Kelowna—that made the British Co- creek nearby?
planner titled lumbia forest fires one of the big stories
FireSmart: Protect- 2. Cut back all vegetation within 10
of summer 2003. The province’s audi- metres of your home, and thin it out
ing Your Commu-
nity from Wildfire.
tor general, Wayne Strelioff, had earlier for another 20 metres.
It may be warned of the danger of “interface
downloaded in PDF fires.” These are fires that take place in 3. Store all combustibles, including a
format at areas where communities are built right woodpile, well away from the house.
www.partnersin up against the forest. This was certainly 4. Seal any openings (eaves or vents)
true in Kelowna, where one of the where sparks from a fire could enter
attractions was the ability to live in the the building.
1. What appear to be the major causes of this summer’s forest fires? Which
cause is most important in your opinion? Why?
2. Would you wish to live close to a forest? Explain.
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 40
FOREST FIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
The traditional model of fighting a spread, would become so intense that
forest fire has been reactive. firefighters could not approach them.
Firefighters and major equipment such Experts believe that further improve-
as helicopters and water bombers were ments can be made both in the technol-
sent out only after a blaze broke out. ogy used to monitor forest fires and in
Today, advanced scientific techniques the computer models used to predict
are used to actually predict forest fires, their behaviour. Satellite technology is
and crews and equipment are placed in currently used to assess the combusti-
advance in areas of the likely greatest bility of trees, grasses, and shrubs by
danger. They are shifted from site to measuring their moisture content, and
site as threats change. to provide regular updates on conditions
Canadian firefighting agencies are in areas that are at risk. Two satellites,
among the best in the world at forecast- Terra and Aqua, use heat radiation to
ing forest fires and their behaviour. As map the extent and intensity of fires.
author Michael Clugston writes in the Within two hours of their making a pass
July 2003 issue of Canadian Geo- over an area, the data gathered are made
graphic, “Saskatchewan’s system is available to firefighters via the Internet.
among the country’s most successful.” Terra and Aqua, however, can only
Saskatchewan’s system operates by make two passes per day, and the
following what Clugston calls the resolution of the images they produce is
underlying principles of the smart relatively poor. As a result, NASA is
revolution in fighting forest fires: proposing to create a “sensor web” of
“Weather satellites show the approach interconnected satellites—satellites that
of lightning storms. Stations in the can actually communicate with one
forest report moisture, temperature, another—to monitor fires. These would
humidity, and wind speed by satellite, be combined with flights of pilotless
radio, or telephone. Computer memo- aircraft kept in the sky for an entire
ries are stockpiled with maps docu- season to make closer observations.
menting forest types, communities, and Computer scientists who create the
other areas of value across the province. models intended to predict forest fire
And 25 years of focused research into behaviour admit that they are still
fire behaviour tells duty officers how a unable to handle true wildfires. They
particular fire is likely to flare or fizzle, believe that they are almost capable of
threaten a town, or burn itself out predicting the behaviour of prescribed
harmlessly.” burns—those fires that are deliberately
Saskatchewan’s firefighting centre set by forest managers to clear under-
near Prince Albert uses the kind of growth from some areas. But the
sophisticated system described above. behaviour of a true wildfire, which can
Using computer models, observers are create sudden wind shifts on its own,
able to predict how much time remains problematic. Scientists at the
firefighters have to prevent a fire from National Center for Atmospheric Re-
expanding beyond a certain area, or to search (NCAR) in Colorado are cur-
locate areas where fires, if allowed to rently experimenting with three-dimen-
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 41
sional inputs from Doppler radar to see These backfires can redirect forest fires
Did you know. . . if that information, channelled into away from buildings or from valuable
Forest fires “accel-
models, would provide useful (that is, timber that firefighters are trying to
erate amid ever-
greens but sputter timely) predictions. save. In real emergencies they can be
in leafy stands? Should scientists at NCAR or in other used to slow down a wildfire to provide
They speed natu- laboratories ultimately develop a suc- extra time for evacuation. Helicopter
rally downwind cessful, truly effective model for pre- pilots will find a natural barrier —a
and uphill and dicting fire behaviour, the technology body of water, such as a stream or a
grow fiercer and
faster in the late
will be available for effectively distrib- lake—and will redirect the fire toward it.
afternoon than at uting the information where it matters In some areas, ground sensors are
night”? — Michael most. Through wireless technology, the used to monitor lightning strikes. In
Clugston, Canadian information will be instantaneously Saskatchewan, for example, sensors
Geographic, July distributed to firefighters with personal detect lightning strikes as disturbances
digital assistants. A prototype is under in the earth’s magnetic field. Satellites
development at NCAR. relay the information to the firefighting
Meanwhile, forest fires continue to be centre in Prince Albert, and helicopters
fought with a mixture of old and new can be dispatched to see if a fire is
technologies. Water bombers remain an developing.
important tool, dropping both water and However, as Clugston points out:
fire retardant on remote blazes. Heli- “Ultimately, almost all fires are still put
copters can be used to patrol areas of out by teams of several hundred men
suspected lightning strikes and to carry and women on the ground in their
teams of firefighters quickly to new yellow or orange coveralls, labouring
outbreaks. with hand tools in wild and dangerous
Helicopters with a helitorch— a drum terrain.” They remain the real heroes in
of jellied fuel with a hose and burner British Columbia during the summer of
nozzle—are often used to set backfires. 2003.
Some researchers are quick to point out that computer models predicting forest
fires fail to take into account the human factor—that a high proportion of fires
are set intentionally or through carelessness. What kinds of factors would a
computer model need to include in order to build in the possibility of human
causes of fires?
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 42
FOREST FIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
YV Cruel Statistics
Further Research Activity
Statistical and Here are some stunning statistical data outlining B.C.’s most dangerous summer
general informa- of forest fires. Circle the three facts that you consider to be the most significant
tion on forest fires and be prepared to explain your choices. Which item did you find most surpris-
is available on the ing? Why?
Web from the
Canadian Forest Fires Emergency Measures
Service at Total number of forest fires in Canada, State of Emergency declared: August 2,
www.nrcan.gc.ca/ 2003: 7996 (as of September 17) 2003
prodserv/firereport/ Total number of forest fires in B.C., State of Emergency expired: September
firereport_e.htm 2003: 2460 (as of September 11) 14, 2003
and from the
Record number of fires in B.C., 1994: Maximum number of firefighters at
Ministry of Forests 4088 height of emergency: 3500
at Fires still active in B.C., September 30:
protect/ Total number of Canadian Forces
Average number of fires, 1993-2002: personnel involved in fire fighting at
1805 height of emergency: 2200
Did you know. . . Average percentage of fires caused by Number of Canadian Forces personnel
Soldiers assigned to
battle fires in B.C.
humans, 1993-2002: 45.6 per cent directly on fire lines: 1100
felt they were at Percentage of fires still active on Sep- Number of current Canadian Forces
war? Lieutenant- tember 30, 2003, caused by humans: 38 deployments larger than the B.C. fire
per cent fight: 1 (Afghanistan)
“This is a military Percentage of forest fires in Europe
operation for us. during 2003 believed to be caused by Economic Costs
Are we fighting an humans: 95 per cent Amount budgeted by the B.C. govern-
enemy? Yes, the ment to fight forest fires in 2003: $58-
fire. I don’t want to Square kilometres of B.C. consumed by million
be overly dramatic, fires, 2003: 2500+
but from our Estimated final costs to fight the 2003
perspective our fires: $545-million
Three Largest Fires, 2003
operation is de-
fending a city.” — 1. Chilko Lake, 292 square kilometres Final amount expressed as a percentage
The Globe and 2. McLure-Barriere, 264 square of the budgeted amount: 940 per cent
Mail, September 6, kilometres (destroyed the village of How the money was spent: $410-
Louis Creek and its sawmill) million on direct fire fighting; $75-
3. Okanagan Mountain Park, 256 square million on emergency response (includ-
kilometres (caused the evacuation of ing evacuation relief); $60-million on
one-third of Kelowna and destroyed cleaning and remediation in burned
250 homes) areas.
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 43
Cost per day to taxpayers: $8-million Number of evacuations, mid-July to
Average cost of 234 Kelowna homes mid-September: 23
destroyed by the Okanagan Mountain Total number of people ordered evacu-
Park Fire: $350 000 ated: 50 000
Average claim expected to be submitted Number of fires responsible for mul-
to insurance companies by Kelowna tiple evacuation orders: 3
homeowners: $600 000-$700 000 Number of people ordered evacuated on
Size of the building boom for Kelowna two separate occasions: 6000
that the Vancouver Sun predicts will Percentage of those under evacuation
result from the 2003 fire: $150-million notice who refused evacuation orders:
2 per cent
Number of dead as result of forest fires: Number of people still on evacuation
3 (pilots killed in crashes) alert on September 12: 32 000
Number of homes destroyed: 334
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 44
FOREST FIRES: BATTLING THE MONSTER
YV Final Activity: Evacuate
About 50 000 residents of British Columbia were ordered evacuated during the
Quote summer of 2003. Many others were under evacuation warnings and had to be
“Much of the West prepared to leave with as little as one hour’s notice.
will remember the
summer of 2003 as As a result, many people had to flee with very few possessions; in some cases,
the year of fire; they could only take a half-dozen items from the treasures they had accumu-
when the sky went lated over a lifetime. Adding to the difficulty was the need to decide quickly
black and the sun what would they most hate to lose. Many evacuees later remembered items
turned orange.” — that they were devastated to have left behind: for example, family heirlooms or
Andrew Nikiforuk, photograph albums.
The Globe and
Mail, September 6, How would you respond to an evacuation order?
An accident requires the evacuation of your community. You have 10 minutes
in which to gather together the five items that you would most hate to leave
behind. They must be relatively small, because you have to be able to transport
them by yourself.
List in the chart below the five items you would take. In the space next to each
item, explain the reason why it is so important to you.
Item Reasons for Taking It
After the 10 minutes is up, in small groups, compare your list with those of
some of your classmates. Are there common choices on all the lists? Would you
make any changes to your list after hearing your classmates’ choices?
CBC News in Review • October 2003 • Page 45