CHRIS WOOD August 24 1998


CHRIS WOOD August 24 1998




Shirtless in the smoke-filled, 30°C heat, Richard Vancamp, 41, points to the blackened grass that marks where fire came within seconds of consuming his rented one-storey house south of Salmon Arm, B.C.. The flames advanced until they licked at one of the building’s bare wooden corner posts. There, a last-minute burst from a firefighter’s hose stopped the flames just in time to save the home Vancamp shares with his 27-year-old wife, Tania, and two cats.

The couple’s landlord, farmer Gordon Muik, was less fortunate. His house, barns and equipment sheds once stood only 100 m away, across a small creek. But when flying embers from a fire racing along both sides of this southern B.C. valley ignited timbers of a bridge across the creek, firefighters could only watch in frustration as the farm burned to the ground. Around a blue swimming pool, nothing remained but charred scars where buildings once stood, and buckled, ashgrey sheets of tortured metal roofing. Says Vancamp: “Once the fire went crazy, it looked like Vietnam here.” The sense of a war against an implacable foe is being repeated in communities across Canada this summer. At one point last week, nearly 1,000 fires were blazing: 115 of those were considered out of control. At week’s end, about 150 people were forced from the remote Northern Ontario town of Peawanuk because of spreading fires. Alberta reported 74 fires blazing and almost half of those were considered out of control: fires in the northwest created a haze of smoke that was visible over Edmonton, 200 km to the south.

At Slave Lake in northern Alberta, a comparatively small fire erupted early in the week into an inferno that soon consumed 35,000 hectares—the equivalent of 35,000 football fields—of forest. Said awed town manager Pat Vincent: “It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. There was this humongous black cloud hanging over the community.” In northern Saskatchewan, a massive 115,000-hectare fire forced families from homes in four rural communities. Additional fires were reported in Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and every province to the east except Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Of all of those affected, the hardest-hit province was British Columbia, where 200 Canadian army troops were called in to help battle flames at Lillooet and Salmon Arm in the southern interior. Some of those

troops backed up 300 civilian firefighters in battling a blaze even larger than the one at Slave Lake. That fire prompted the largest evacuation in B.C. peacetime history, as 8,000 people left their homes. And the fire was only one of 534 in the province, burning under searing, rainless skies.

By the weekend, the Salmon Arm blaze seemed close to being declared contained. But as nervous residents began returning home, they, and fire crew bosses, were watching the weather closely for fear that an approaching cold front, coupled with no sign of rain, could cause the fire to flare up again. And as new fires continued to ignite in tinder-dry forests across the country, victims and fire specialists alike speculated about the reason for the rash of blazes.

In Salmon Arm, the cause was no mystery. Just after 3 p.m. on July 29, lightning struck the Silver Creek area, overlooking Gordon Muik’s farm, which is located in the bottom of a valley south of town. The strike ignited dry timber. Within 15 minutes, a B.C. Forest Service crew dropped water on the spot, but not enough to extinguish the fire, which expanded over several days. On Aug. 5, gusts of wind clocked at up to 90 km/h fanned the blaze into an inferno, with flames racing through the timber at 100 m a minute. Embers, caught in the strong wind, carried flames into the valley below. They set alight the Muik house as well as 19 homes and a dozen outbuildings. Meanwhile, across the valley, flames took less than 15 minutes to sweep up the forested slopes of 1,567-m Mount Ida, which stands at the southern edge of Salmon Arm. Later that day, the evacuations began.

For many, the leave-taking was traumatic. After a sleepless night, retired teacher Bob Johnson, 79, and his wife, Pam, 77, a former nurse, abandoned their sixyear-old home at sunrise. Particularly difficult, said Pam, was deciding what to take with them: ‘You’ve got all the stuff you’ve collected all your life and you have to put it in the back of your car and go. It was devastating.” The couple found shelter at a motel in Enderby, 20 km to the south, where the manager had hurried to make rooms ready for evacuees.

Brothers Eldon and John Clairmont and their families did not wait for the official order. Both lived on the northern slope of Mount Ida, within sight of the advancing flames. They and their wives, Shirley and Marilyn, Eldon’s 29-year-old mentally disabled son Robert, and John’s daughters, Chantelle, 5, and Marlena, 17, climbed into a trailer and camper van, and relocated to an Enderby campground. (A 13-year-old son who suffers from

Forest fires erupt across the country

asthma had earlier been sent to stay with relatives.) Said Eldon, 55, a retired logger: “I’ve fought fires. I know the danger. When you see it crowning in the trees, you can’t outrun it.”

Even after the evacuation order was lifted for most residents at midweek, a massive mobilization to combat the fire continued at a cost of up to $1 million a day. At a base camp on one side of the smoke-filled valley, rows of tents sheltered fire crews from as far away as Ontario, as they rested between 14-hour days on the fire line. From two mobile command trailers, fire bosses juggled information from helicopter-borne spotters against weather reports and advice of fire specialists. They oversaw deployment of firefighters and tanker trucks, as well as a dozen choppers and two immense, four-engine Amer-

ican Martin Mars water bombers. Across the valley, a second base housed spare heavy equipment for cutting firebreaks, and 100 troops from the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. By week’s end, more than a million gallons of water and fire retardant had been dropped, and more than 35 km of firebreaks cut around the blaze’s perimeter. Still, smoke continued to rise from

scarred ridges overlooking the town.

Inevitably, the spate of fires has fanned theories as to their cause. Specialists note that a nearly rainless, hot summer in the wake of the El Niño weather phenomenon of last winter has contributed to the risk. But, they add, the number of fires, while high, is not especially unusual. And while some speculate about the role of global warming, B.C. fire behavior specialist Judi Becke fingered a more startling factor in the breakout of the Salmon Arm inferno. Becke theorizes that cold air over glaciers in the Monashee Mountains, 100 km north of the region, propels icy downdrafts. Those, in combination with local topography, produce unpredictable freak winds, or “microbursts,” of hurricane strength lasting up to several hours. Such a wind, she suggested, may have caused the breakout that overwhelmed firefighters at Salmon Arm. “People in the valley,” said Becke, “are living in the earthquake fault line of forest fires.”

That conclusion will do little to lighten tension in weeks ahead. Even as the owners of burned-out farms and homes at Salmon Arm begin piecing their lives back together, firefighters said it will take months to subdue

embers that still smoulder up to three metres below the surface of burned-out forests. Warned fire boss Roy Benson: “There will still be smoke visible here when the snow flies.” Fire and ice may have finally found a way to co-exist in the face of human tragedy.

With MARY NEMETH in Calgary