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Behind the scenes of fighting wildfires

Fighting wildfires can be a significant and dynamic task that may require a variety of tactics to control effectively, with unique challenges posed by each fire.

According to Fons Raedschelders, Senior Officer of Wildfire Prevention with the Southeast Fire Centre, each fire is treated differently and is dependant on many factors, such as its proximity to a community, the type of terrain it’s in, the kinds of trees in the area and how accessible it is.

“The first thing that we have to find out is what is it going to take and how long is it going to take. Once we can answer those two questions, then we can start to look at how do we get what we need, where do we get it from and where do we put those things,” explained Raedschelders. “The logistics and the planning are what makes it successful, it’s a ‘right tool for the job’ situation.”

Raedschelders said plans are made to attack the fire based on what the landscape is, where critical infrastructure is and protecting human life and safety. After those considerations are made, planners look at fire behaviour and historical growth, conditions of the forest and fuels, how and where crews can get the fire under control, local forecasts.

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“Prioritizing changes throughout the year. When you get 20,000 lightning strikes in a subtropical feed after a very long warming and drying trend, prioritizing looks a bit different than when you have an early season lower fire load, but with maybe dry grass,” said Raedschelders.

According to Raedschelders, fighting fires has a universal standard known as the ‘fire triangle,’ which is what is needed to burn. This includes fuel, oxygen and heat.

“If you can remove one of the sides of the triangle, you essentially prevent its ability to burn. Techniques all revolve around that and in different types of fires and different situations, you kind of have to target one of those sides independently. In some circumstances, you can target multiple sides of that triangle,” explained Raedschelders.

Firefighters use another triangle model to predict fire behaviour, this includes weather, topography and fuel.

“With those, you can assess and determine what type of fire you’re going to get and anticipate and what is going to drive the fire. Then you can see where you can try to take away one of the sides of the first triangle,” said Raedschelders. “If you have a lot of wind, for example, then you can try to take away the fuel on certain sides of that fire, so when the wind pushes into it it has nothing to burn into.”

Previous fires could also help with fighting current wildfires.

“Fire returns in intervals and sometimes it’s shorter or longer, but you can use that knowledge and try to focus on where the fire is and where it wants to be what it would do and try to get around it,” said Raedschelders. “When they butt up against those larger fires they impact it greatly, they almost dead stop in some circumstances. We see examples of this all over the place, where we will use old, historical fires at fire breaks.

Raedschelders noted that many trees have a high survival rate when a wildfire sweeps through.

“Certain portions of certain fires will be intense enough to kill trees, but most fires will have a high survival rate because those trees are built for that. You’ll lose some juvenile trees and it will thin the forest and clean out forest fuels,” said Raedschelders.

When a fire season becomes too much to handle, firefighters from outside of the province, or even from outside of Canada are called in to help.

“Canada is absolutely massive, so whether you’re getting help from another province or another country, there’s always safety things and nuances that you have to learn. In the end, it doesn’t take long to get down to a safe way of working and knowing what we’re good at and what we can all do and where to go. The integration is fairly critical but quite smooth,” explained Raedschelders.

Firefighters at the scene are often kept in camps a safe distance away, or in nearby communities, if the fire takes a longer time to get under control.

“We’ll set up mobile camps that will have a wash car, maybe a food car and then we’ll be tenting in camps in an organized fashion,” said Raedschelders. “Whenever we can, we make sure people can get into a hotel if it’s available and within striking distance.”

As of Friday, August 20th, 249 wildfires are burning across the province, according to the BC Wildfire Service, with 65 in the Southeast Fire Centre area.

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