Peachland BC Wildfires: How Firefighters Douse The Flames

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KELOWNA WILDFIRE 2003
The Okanagan Mountain Park forest fire seen from Peachland, B.C., lights up the night sky Aug. 21, 2003. (Richard Lam, CP) | CP

More than 150 personnel continue to tackle a wildfire in Peachland, B.C. as it spreads to 200 hectares. Helicopters have been dispatched for water bucketing support and heavy equipment is being used to construct fuel-free areas around the fire.

The fire isn't yet fully contained, but there's little doubt that B.C.'s fire crews, with a wealth of experience, know how to contain it. British Columbia's tin-dry summers and abundant forestry mean that B.C. is more vulnerable to fires than almost anywhere else in Canada.

Every year B.C. is forced to fight an average of more than 2,000 wildfires, according to the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch. Over 92 per cent of these fires are under four hectares in size but some, like the Peachland fire can stretch to up to 200 hectares, the size of 361 American football fields.

But how do you stop them? And just how bad can a wildfire get in this province?

HISTORY

The 2003 fire season was "one of the most catastrophic in British Columbia's recorded history," according to the Wildfire Management Branch.

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2003 B.C. Fire Season
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Lightning strikes, an extended drought and arson created conditions unlike any that forest firefighters had seen in Canada. The season saw nearly 2,500 fires flare up around the province. More than 10,000 firefighters put out fires that charred an area of 265,000 hectares.

The 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire has been called the "most significant interface wildfire in B.C.'s history." It covered 25,600 hectares and forced the evacuations of 33,050 people. Over 230 homes were lost or destroyed.

The fire swallowed up 12 wooden trestles that were part of the historic Myra Canyon Section of the Kettle Valley Railway. The Myra Canyon Section, in use from 1914 to 1978, was seen as a historic engineering feat and was declared a national historic site of Canada.

The McLure fire in the summer of 2003 was another significant blaze. That one consumed 26,240 hectares, damaging 72 homes and forcing the evacuations of 3,800 people.

WHY FIRES SPREAD

The B.C. Wildfire Management Branch points out three factors that help fires spread:

  1. Fuels can be anything from dry grass to dead leaves and tree needles. They can light up quick and spread a fire. Other fuels include larger items like logs or stumps. They take longer to flare up, but they also burn longer. Burning logs can also fall down hillsides and ignite trees and fuels next to it as it slides.
  2. "Fuel spacing" refers to the distribution of fuels in a certain area. If different fuels are closer together, the likelihood is higher that a fire will spread.
  3. Quantity or specifically how many fuels there are in a certain area. The more there are, the higher the likelihood of a fire igniting and spreading.

"HIT HARD, HIT FAST"

The B.C. Wildfire Management Branch has a simple formula for tackling a fire: "hit hard, hit fast." Crews have the best chance to tackle fires when they catch them in their earliest stages, reducing the cost of fighting it and keeping tree loss to a minimum.

But crews can't fight every fire in the same way. When a fire happens in a remote area with few trees or aesthetic values, crews will be pulled back to create "fire breaks," little gaps in fire-prone areas that reduce the risk of a fire spreading from one area to the next. A fire break can involve tree falling or clearing forest fuels to ensure that a fire can't pick up speed.

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