A wildfire warning

By Tom Read

Here's a small part of the Cranby Creek fire zone. You can see that most trees weren't seriously damaged, but that's only because we were lucky that the fire hit when there was still enough moisture in the ground.

Here's a small part of the Cranby Creek fire zone. You can see that most trees weren't seriously damaged, but that's only because we were lucky that the fire hit when there was still enough moisture in the ground.

Back in the late summer of 2006, Texadans fought side-by-side with provincial firefighters to put down an accidentally caused wildfire that could have resulted in widespread destruction if it had successfully migrated from an open field into the forest. That was a very dry year, and capricious winds kept the fire alive as an unpredictable threat right up until overwhelming force arrived in the form of two quarry water tankers and a corps of local volunteers. We were lucky; it was a close call.

Last weekend, another wildfire hit Texada.  Located near the headwaters of Cranby Creek, this fire jumped immediately from a clearing near a dwelling on private property directly into the public’s forest. The cause is under investigation, particularly since nobody has admitted to starting the fire. Ambiguity has fueled fierce rumour and innuendo heard all over the island; dark speculations but no proof. This isn’t healthy for our community, and it’s quite unfair to anyone being targeted by such speculation. I know we can do better than this, but that’s a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as in 2006, Texada volunteers responded admirably to the fire alarm, including the Gillies Bay Volunteer Fire Department, JMG Logging (water tanker) and Wallmer Bobcat Service (backhoe). Provincial firefighters came through as well, including air crews flying two fixed-wing fire retardant bombers and a water-dumping helicopter, plus an experienced team on the ground. After about eight acres of a steep, forested, rocky hillside had burned, the firefighter’s coordinated efforts first contained, then knocked out this fire. The drama lasted about five hours.

The next day I spoke with members of the mop-up crew, who had come from Port Alberni to help fight the fire when it broke out on Saturday afternoon. “We were lucky here,” said a sweat-soaked young man who had been digging out and extinguishing hotspots among still-smoking tree roots. “This was a classic surface fire, where the flames never got higher than my shoulder,” he said. “The amount of moisture in the ground meant that the fire had to use most of its energy to burn off water, so it never got into the tree tops. Mostly, it just singed the trees and destroyed a lot of undergrowth.”

He added that the mid-sized and large trees should not suffer any permanent damage, and the burning of undergrowth and old deadwood on the forest floor will actually help reduce future risk of a catastrophic wildfire on these relatively few acres.  But 2009 is already shaping up as a dry year for Texada, and we may not be so lucky next time. If this fire had occurred on a windy day in August, after months of little rain, events might have unfolded quite differently.

These dangerous events are foreseeable, if not exactly predictable as to time and place. What are we doing as individuals and as a community to prepare for wildfires? I know we haven’t done enough at our house to protect ourselves; our current plan would mostly amount to safe evacuation. But what about our community? Does anyone have a copy of the Texada Emergency Preparation Plan? What does it say about coordinating emergency response and follow-up in the event of a truly wild fire in the forest?  I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out and report back in a future post.


3 Responses to “A wildfire warning”

  1. 1 David Parkinson May 31, 2009 at 10:44

    Nice post, Tom. I hope this doesn’t sound too stupid, but besides evacuation plans and coordination of emergency responders, what can we do? Should we be creating and filling water tanks? Buying more equipment? Educating people? I’m curious to know how we as a community can tackle these threats which look set to get worse as the climate becomes more unpredictable.

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

  2. 2 Tom Read May 31, 2009 at 11:38

    Thanks, David

    I believe it was David Holmgren, of permaculture fame and whom you’ve quoted at length, who suggested that individuals should design their homes for the “catastrophe” appropriate to where they live. We live in a temperate rainforest that burns every so often, so step one is to build our homes to withstand wildfire. That’s not easy, but what comes to mind would be a partially underground, passive-solar heated hobbit-house with living roof and any exposed surfaces non-flammable. A home of this nature would also stand up well to earthquake and high winds, two other likely emergency scenarios for this region.

    Next, have insurance. I’m aghast at the amount of money that insurance companies drain from small rural communities like ours; maybe our communities will be able to self-insure someday (a future post topic). But insurance itself is a good idea because we have to face the reality of losing our homes. Honest home/fire insurance could make a huge difference in getting one’s life back together.

    The other night at a community dinner I sat next to a long-time Texadan and volunteer firefighter, and we were discussing the recent fire. He mentioned that the fire retardant dropped by air tankers is extremely gelatinous and slippery. “You can’t even walk on it after the planes have dumped or you’ll fall down,” he said. So I wonder if individual homeowners could spray this stuff on their own houses just before evacuating in the face of a wildfire. I’ve not researched this idea so I don’t know if the potential environmental damage would be worth losing your home, but I plan to explore this approach further.

    Finally, what can you do if a wildfire is bearing down on your defenseless home and you’re preparing to leave? 1) Make a large turnaround spot for the fire crews in the area, because they might park their vehicles in your driveway and use your house as a key staging area to fight the fire. Your place would then have more chance of being saved than an inaccessible neighbour’s place. I’ve seen this happen. 2) Adopt a non-materialistic attitude about life. So what if you lose your home? Life goes on.

    I still don’t know what the Texada Emergency Preparedness Plan says about wildfire. But I agree with Ryan Thoms, our regional emergency coordinator, who told the Texada Chamber of Commerce last Friday night that no government can really protect us from such events. We’ve got to take personal responsibility for our own well-being in emergencies, and then reach out to help others as best we can.


  3. 3 David Parkinson May 31, 2009 at 13:00

    Thanks, Tom. I wonder how we can organize people to work on stuff like disaster-preparedness. We don’t seem too good at getting ready for distant (albeit real) threats.

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