Disaster

OUT OF CONTROL

KEN MACQUEEN September 1 2003
Disaster

OUT OF CONTROL

KEN MACQUEEN September 1 2003

OUT OF CONTROL

Disaster

Thousands flee their homes as British Columbia endures its most destructive summer of forest fires

KEN MACQUEEN

THE STUNNING natural setting that attracted Dina and Mel Kotier to their home on the edge of Gallagher’s Canyon in Kelowna’s southeast is the very thing that rose up against them the dying hours of last Thursday. The treed view of canyon, lake and city turned ominous, as has in so many places across British Columbia in this summer of flames. Never before have so many fires threatened those living on the wilderness fringe of B.C. Many discovered to their alarm that nature isn’t as benign as may seem. “I have to admit,” says Mel, a retired executive, “to being very naive about the ramifications of that danger.”

With the sky glowing red as wildfires consumed Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park to the south, he packed to leave home Thursday night, just ahead of an evacuation order that moved 10,000 people out by early Friday. Overnight, 15 homes burned. Dina was away visiting family. It was left to Mel to gather papers, jewellery, the works of his wife and her father—both artists—and Hotstuff, the Kotlers’ cat. “Things are things,” he says later, after a hectic night that saw their home spared. “As long as everyone is OK, that’s the important stuff.” Across the province, 825 fires have forced the evacuation of thousands from the Okanagan, from cowboy country near Kamloops, and in the mountainous Kootenay region southeastern B.C. By Friday, more than 170,000 hectares of forest had been destroyed in the most devastating and expensive fire year provincial history. As of Friday, the provincial government had burned through more than $156.7 million—three times its annual fire suppression budget.

Three pilots have died in two crashes in the aerial fire fights that are a riveting spectacle of skill and courage. “To lose three people this year is a very sobering reminder of the dangers and the risks that our pilots and a lot of our staff face on a daily basis,” says provincial fire information officer Steve Bachop. Forestry crews, contractors, hundreds of soldiers and urban firefighters—more than 3,500 in all—are waging the battle against tough odds.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than the populous Okanagan region, where the fate of homes, orchards, wineries and the peak of the tourist season hang on the whims of wind and weather. “It’s tough to imagine that 10,000 of our citizens have now been evacuated,” says Kelowna mayor Walter Gray. But he’s impressed by what’s he’s seen in such trying circumstances. “Our city, under siege,’ he says,

TWO HOT SPOTS

“certainly has a population with a lot of spirit.” Kotier struggles for composure as he describes the response of fire crews and the community as a whole. “Sorry,” he says, his voice wobbling. “These guys are just so fantastic. The volunteers, the organization that’s in place—it’s just wonderful to see.”

It was the same across B.C.—acts of grace, courage and the sort of rugged resistance typified by ranchers Ian and Anja Mitchell of Barrière, 60 km north of Kamloops. The family-run Mitchell Cattle Co. has been under threat through most of August. Fire destroyed their spring range to the south. Some 180 head of their cattle were trapped between spreading fires on the summer range to the northwest— an unknown number are dead. “The fire was so intense,” says Ian, “it actually incinerated the carcasses.” He saved 60 head, but with the fencing and corrals burned, it’s difficult to herd the surviving cattle onto trucks. “The cows have gotten so nonchalant about the fire there’ll be something burning right beside them and they’re not even leaving,” says Anja. “If they’re not running from the flames, how can we help them?”

The Mitchells aren’t fleeing either. Ian, followed by other neighbours, ignored two evacuation orders, running irrigation pipes to houses and setting lawn sprinklers on rooftops. Anja, seven months pregnant, left with their three-year-old daughter, returning as soon as she could despite the smoke. The initial fire, started on July 30 by a discarded cigarette, raged north from McLure, destroying dozens of homes and businesses with it as it spread with devastating speed and an unearthly roar. “People describe it like a 747 parked in the backyard,” says Anja.

The Mitchells list their challenges without self-pity. Others have it worse. Ian knows some ranchers on the brink of ruin, their finances already devastated by the mad cow scare. Ben von Hardenberg, a 33-year-old pilot from Mission, B.C., died two weeks before his wedding date, when his helicopter crashed on Aug. 17 into the flames he was fighting on the western fringe of the Mitchells’ land.

The risk on the ground, too, is enormous. At their peak, flames in the McLure-Barrière and Okanagan Mountain park fires climbed more than 60 m into the forest canopy, and spread at more than 90 m a minute, says Bachop. “You can drop all the fire retardant and all the

The huge blaze beside Okanagan Lake as it raged northward toward Kelowna

water you’ve got access to and in most cases it’s not going to do anything to slow it down,” he says. That latter fire, started on Aug. 16 by lightning, became a “double-headed monster,” as one official put it, as winds pushed it north to Kelowna, or south toward the postcardperfect village ofNaramata.

It’s the potential for massive loss of property and life that sets this year’s fire season apart— and causes some to ask if the B.C. government could have mitigated the risk. Provincial Auditor General Wayne Strelioff warned two years ago of the growing threat of “interface fires,” where human development abuts the natural forest—already seen claiming communities and lives in California, New Mexico and Australia. Ironically, the near mythical love of British Columbians for their forests seems to be a contributing factor. Not only are they building flammable little pieces of suburbia amid the trees, but a case can be made that the province’s woods are being killed with kindness. Logging provincial parks to remove dead and bug-infested trees, and expanding prescribed burns to clear forest underbrush, have been political no-go zones. Decades of suppressing the natural cycle of fire also added to what Strelioff warned was a “significant buildup of forest fuels.”

Forests Minister Mike de Jong has signalled a willingness to consider reinstituting such tough-love remedies as controlled burns to limit further disasters for forest fires. Last week, the province hurriedly created a special fire department with the power to instantly deploy

equipment and people to fight interface fires. Kamloops forest contractor Gary Barber is part of the ongoing battle, running a crew of 75 on fires across the B.C. Interior in the worst conditions he’s seen in his 23 years in the woods. That there are homes amid the trees only raises the stakes. “You never heard much about these fires until there were houses out there,” he says, as though answering the eternal puzzle about trees in the forest. “When it’s just trees getting burned, and no one sees it, it’s not a big deal.” But when forests fall this summer, they indeed make a sound. A dying roar, as Anja Mitchell put it, as loud as a 747. 1^1