"I love the smell of Jet B in the morning."
It's a familiar refrain at fire bases across the province. Jet B is the fuel that powers the water bombers currently dousing fires in forests throughout British Columbia. Almost 2,000 firefighters across the province smell it every morning as they wage a headlong battle in what's been called the worst summer for forest fires in B.C.'s history.
None can be blamed for drawing analogies with the Vietnam War. Helicopter rotors pierce the quaint quiet of mountains and valleys. Like choppers storming a defenseless beach in "Apocalypse Now," air tankers aggressively drop red fire retardant on burning forests and the singed slopes that result. They might as well be blasting "Ride of the Valkyries" out their cockpits.
It's a scene unfamiliar to Pemberton, but it's likely to become that way as the lush farming valley confronts a new natural enemy. It already had floods to contend with and now it has fires in the summer.
August 7/09. I'm riding into the Spud Valley on a Greyhound. My bike's in cargo as I prepare to ride up the Pemberton Meadows to a site where forest fires burn on each side of the valley.
The bus lands at 11:30 a.m. and I retrieve my bike - a Kona Fire Mountain my parents got me as a graduation present last summer. Still runs pretty good except for a brake pad that brushes against the front disk. I have to hope it holds out for a long ride.
Fires are burning about 20 clicks up the Meadows on Copper Mountain and the Camel's Back. Sandwiched between them on the valley floor is some of the most productive agricultural land in the province, its caretakers just sitting there and waiting to see if they'll get evacuated. They're making the best of a bad situation.
Even 20 clicks out, you can feel the fires in the town centre. To the south a smoky haze hangs over majestic Mount Currie. You can feel the heat and the fumes in your nostrils. Asthmatics need not apply.
I'm here to meet Mike McCulley, a Fire Information Officer with the Coastal Fire Centre of the B.C. Ministry of Forests' Wildfire Management Branch. I've asked to see the fires up a little closer than my desk in Function Junction will afford me. Ideally I want to see fire personnel tackling a wall of flames as it grows and engulfs us in a ring of cinders. But I'm not holding my breath.
I've never seen the valley north of the community centre so I figure I'll try and get out there on the bike. It's a pleasant ride and the Meadows sprawl with lovely, cultivated valley, its roots pregnant with agricultural potential.