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Combat crews prepare for busy season

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"I really worry about Whistler, especially Alpine and Emerald. There is a lot of fuel — dead wood — lying around the ground there and of course everyone has chosen to build their $800,000 shack in the middle of the woods. The whole thing is a bomb waiting to happen. It’s definitely a question of when, not if.

 

What do lightning, cigarettes and campfires all have in common? The correct answer does not come with any financial reward, but if you said that together they are responsible for about 90 per cent of all forest fires in British Columbia, then you would be right.

Last year $52.7 million was spent by the provincial government to fight close to 2,000 forest fires. That represents over 17,000 hectares burned.

Lightning strikes accounted for about 30 per cent of that total, so unless you’re Zeus we can’t really hold anyone accountable. Human beings, however, take the blame for the rest of all forest fires.

So with wild fire season soon upon us, if not already here, what protections are in place to prevent more precious hectares of forest land being reduced to ash?

Well, here in British Columbia where there certainly is plenty of precious forest to protect, the B.C. forest service has aimed extensive resources towards both the prevention and suppression of forest fires. Take for instance that old stalwart the lookout tower. Although not present on the coast (the local geography makes them impractical), they are still maintained throughout the rest of the province. Personally I have always had a somewhat romantic notion of these wilderness sentinels, manned by generations of college students who spent summers in solitary seclusion keeping watch over the vast hinterland, hoping to catch a wildfire in it’s infancy.

In the past spotters would spend the entire season in the outback — sometimes as long as April through October — with a radio as their only connection to the outside world. These days the lookout towers are only manned intermittently during times of high fire hazard. What has taken their place is a network of lightning sensors strategically placed across the province and linked to a central computer in Victoria. While no doubt much more efficient, they don’t quite capture the imagination the way fire spotters do. Call me old fashioned but I like the human touch.

Fire-fighting jobs that still require human beings — and most likely will for the foreseeable future — include the initial attack squads, unit crews, fire attack officers and water bomber pilots for the B.C. forest service.

If these various designations hold a distinctly military connotation, so does the way people in the service talk about their jobs. For instance when chatting with Mark Fletcher, head of the Pemberton fire unit as well as an air attack officer for the coast region, he uses terms like: tactics, strategy and "getting the planes on target." So does Andy Goss, also a senior member of the Pemberton fire unit. He describes new applicants as recruits and refers to their initial training as "boot camp."

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