British Columbia

B.C. wildfires: Back-breaking battle drags on at Puntzi Lake

The number of wildfires in B.C. has jumped in recent days, leaving fire crews spread thin and experts wondering whether fire and forest management policies in the province need to change. CBC’s Chris Brown visited one fire crew trying to beat back the Puntzi Lake fire, west of Williams Lake.

Team putting in exhausting, 14-hour days against fire

Even as new fronts in British Columbia's intense wildfire season open in the Kelowna and Kamloops areas, hundreds of firefighters continue the dirty, back-breaking job of trying to tame other fires that have been burning for months.

A CBC News crew has just returned from the central Chilcotin area, about 700 kilometres north of Vancouver, where it will take an entire summer's effort to put out the Puntzi Lake fire.

"The risk is it's only the middle of July and we still have eight weeks of hot weather and there are still aspects of this fire where it could threaten communities," said Rob Krause, the fire boss for the operation, as he drove his pick-up past the roadblock and into the fire zone.

The flames have already destroyed 18 structures in this wilderness region, approximately two hours west of Williams Lake, including the home of Georgie Ferguson and a hunting and fishing resort owned by Jan and Dan Coates.

"We estimate it made a 13-kilometre run in a single afternoon," said Krause.

The Puntzi Lake fire was 67 per cent contained on Tuesday. Crews have been trying to stop the blaze, which the province says has grown to more than 8,000 hectares (B.C. Wildfire Service)

As of Tuesday morning, about 67 per cent of the fire was behind fire guards — which can be anything from a lake to a road to a clearing that's been dug to stop the fire — but the leading edge of the Puntzi Lake fire continues to burn eastward.

A few days of cool conditions helped crews clear trees and build guards around the trouble spots, but hotter weather has seen a return of aggressive fire behaviour, and the fire has now covered more than 80 square kilometres of land.

Fire-suppression experts

A team of fire suppression experts known as the Chilcotin Ravens have been key to efforts to contain the wildfire.

Made up of mostly First Nations people from nearby communities such as Alexis Creek, the Ravens have been pulling 14-hour days ever since the fire flared up earlier this month.

"We were able to save one house but had to pull out because it was unsafe," recalled Robert Pedersen, one of the members of the team.

"The fire was going at a Rank 4 or 5 — about 100 feet in the air," said Charlie Alphonse, a 22-year-old who is already in his third season with the Ravens.

It's been a gruelling, exhausting effort.

"We did a 24-hour day, then we did a night shift," said Alphonse, who was digging up still-burning tree roots and hosing them down as he spoke to CBC News.

The Puntzi Lake fire was discovered on July 8, the province says. It's one of several major blazes burning across the province, which is struggling with an intense fire season. (Google Maps)

The Ravens are also using heavy equipment to create new roads in the forest to act as fire breaks.

With natural sources of water far away, the team trucks in huge tanks of water to swimming-pool like containers that have been placed deep in the forest.

Kilometres of hoses and high-pressure pumps then allow team leader Graham Cameron and others to cool down the hot spots.

"You can never count it out till Mother Nature shuts the door," he said.

Let fires burn

While it's not unusual for B.C.'s wildfire teams to spend all summer on the job, this year has been unique, said UBC forestry professor and fire ecology expert Lori Daniels.

"The drought started early with our low snow packs in February," said Daniels. "We made it to the 'very high to extreme' fire danger at the beginning of July, which is two to three weeks ahead of schedule."

Daniels said she and her colleagues are seeing more summers with high-to-extreme fire danger ratings.

She has been at the forefront of research into how to minimize the damage each year from fire.

Graham Cameron has been working on the Puntzi Lake fire. It's not yet known what started the fire west of Williams Lake. (Chris Corday/CBC)

She said it's now accepted that the decades-long practice of suppressing fires in most parts of the province was misguided.

"There's a paradox. By trying to protect our forests from fire, we've actually changed the way fire works in the ecosystem."

She said in the absence of low-intensity fires, leaf-litter and needles build up.

"So now when fires burn, there's more fuel and it becomes more intense and severe."

She said since 2012, under a new wildfire response policy, the province lets more fires burn in areas where timber values are low or properties aren't at risk.

The so-called "modified response" to fires, she said, means many more fires are being allowed run their natural course.

However, Daniels said there is still far too much combustible material where communities and natural areas meet.

"They [the province] are at less than a million dollars for ecosystem restoration this year. And we've spent $100 million — 100 times that — on reactive management" or fighting fires after they break out, she said.     

Timber value a factor

Although smoke continues to rise over much of the charred forest around Puntzi Lake, the main part of the fire is now far from the remaining structures and resorts around the lake. So, in theory, this could have been one fire B.C.'s forest service decided to let burn.

But Rob Krause, the fire boss, said the decision has been made to continue with suppression efforts.

"With this fire, there are too many values at risk. In this area, it's primarily timber value," he said. 

In fact, he said the estimate is that there is $50 million worth of timber still at risk and, with suppression costs coming in around $5 million, Krause said it makes sense for the Ravens and other crews to keep up their efforts.

It's a fight that could last into early October.

Timber value is one factor that goes into deciding how to respond to a wildfire. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Firefighters earn roughly $18 an hour, plus overtime. A busy fire season can mean up to $20,000 for a summer of work — decent money, but an arduous slog.

The base camp, 25 kilometres away from the Puntzi Lake fire, has a well-stocked kitchen and crews don't pay for their food while they are on duty — but there are few luxuries. 

They sleep in tents and, in an area as remote as Puntzi Lake, there is no Wi-Fi or even cellphone service. Crews are lucky to get a few minutes of email time at the communications trailer each day.

But Krause said spending this much time with people in the bush builds a strong bond, that often keeps crews returning summer after summer.

"At the end of the day, fires get put out by hard working men and women, with a shovel or a Pulaski [axe] and water."

"And that hasn't changed in over 35 years."


    Chris Brown

    Foreign Correspondent

    Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.