DOIG RIVER, B.C. – Though previous photographs of the massive plumes of smoke emanating from the Siphon Creek Fire are dramatic, it is from directly above that the charred 853 square kilometres that the true scale of the fire is made apparent.
While driving to a media tour put on by the BC Wildfire Service, the only indication of trouble is a streak of haze visible in the distance from the Rose Prairie Road about 30 kilometres north of Fort St. John. The main camp to house the crew doing battle against the conflagration sits two kilometres down a nondescript dirt road surrounded by tall trees on either side. Entering a clearing, the camp sprawls across several acres of a pasture, with a radio mast, numerous trailers, and dozens of tents to house the firefighters and support staff.
The man in charge of not only the camp, but the entire firefighting operation is Incident Commander Rob Krause, a well-seasoned firefighter who is in his 35th season with the Forest Service. Krause greets the media with a wide smile below his impressive moustache.
After giving a quick briefing of the situation, we don red Nomex coveralls and hop into his SUV for a quick drive to another field where the helicopters battling the flames are being staged. The haze of the wildfire’s smoke quickly surrounds us, the smell permeating the SUV’s cabin. Perched atop a hill in a field, one of nearly a dozen helicopters will soon take us 2,000 ft. into the air over the fire.
Ben Giesbrecht is a veteran helicopter pilot, and is both professional and personable as he gives us a pre-flight safety briefing of his Eurocopter AS350 B2. We board, the engines roar to life, and Geisbrecht powers the chopper into the air, banking steeply to starboard in a spiralling skyward corkscrew before heading north-east.
Not five minutes in the air, the source of the haze quickly becomes apparent: Thick plumes of smoke emanate from a controlled burnout operation on the fire’s western flank. Radio chatter between Giesbrecht and the other chopper pilots around us fills the feed coming through our headphones as we trail another helicopter bucketing the flare-up through the smoke. The atmosphere onboard is one of nervous excitement. These pilots are assisting no less than 40 firefighters less than 1,000 feet below us in a war against the flames. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” could be considered suiting background music for the spectacle of three other helicopters dodging in and out of the smoke, taking turns dropping large buckets of water onto the flare-up.
We climb, heading towards the fire’s head further north-east. Krause explains that the fire activity is sitting primarily at Rank 2, with some areas burning at Rank 3 (for comparison, the Fort McMurray fire was mainly burning at Rank 5 as it encroached the city 3 weeks ago). This stands in stark contrast to just two days previous when the fire grew by nearly 20,000 hectares. The landscape is a patchwork of untouched stands of spruce forest in a sea of blackened sticks. According to Krause, this is a sign of the fire moving at incredible speed. Lines of brown trees are hypothesized by crews as signs of the fire burning fierce enough to consume all available oxygen which results in incomplete combustion, leaving the trees unburned but singed by the intense heat.
Flying around the fire’s perimeter on the return journey, Krause tells us that the lack of intense fire activity below us is due to a shift in the wind from the north, which is pushing the fire back into areas already burned. Due to less rainfall in the past several years Krause says that the water table in the Peace Region is so low that though no large flames are visible, the fire is burning and will continue to burn underground at least until the fire snows fall in autumn. In extreme cases, the blanket of snow can cause a fire to become insulated from the intense cold of winter and reappear the next spring.
We briefly follow another helicopter before peeling off to our southerly track. Geisbrecht and Krause both explain that the other chopper is surveying the fire’s jagged perimeter to establish places that fire guards could be built that will contain the fire while avoiding the numerous pipelines that traverse the terrain, denoted by strips of cleared trees. Crews are unable to use these as fire guards due to the possibility of rupturing them.
We circle around for one more pass of the bucketing operations, albeit this time at a much higher altitude, before heading back toward “White Rock Staging”, one of many locations around the conflagration that serve as helipads. Our pilot’s skills are demonstrated during a sharp banking right turn as he swerves the craft to avoid a bird flying in our path. After a feather-soft landing, we return to base and finish the tour with Fire Information Officer Erin Catherall.
Catherall explains that the base, which can be set up in a little as 48 hours, can accommodate up to 300 personnel. The base will continue to operate for at least the next month as crews attempt to fully contain the fire within the perimeter. Krause says that monitoring the fire once it is fully contained will the focus of crews, not fully extinguishing it.
As of Friday May 20th, 168 firefighters, 4 helicopters, and 11 pieces of heavy equipment are currently battling the fire on the BC side of the Alberta border. Today a new Ontario incident management team is taking over command on the Alberta side of the border, and is collaborating firefighting efforts with their colleagues from BC.