The Current

B.C. firefighters can't do much more than 'get out of the way,' says expert

Smoke from the fires in B.C. is both a danger to health, and an impediment to fighting the wildfires, says Al Beaver, who worked on fire management for governments in Canada and Australia.

Stop adding to 'fuel landscape' if you want to stop fires in future, says Al Beaver

Smoke bellows over the northern shoreline of Nadina Lake, B.C., captured in a photo by a helicopter pilot who has been working on the fires in the area. (Dylan De La Mare)

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When wildfires get as ferocious as the ones ravaging Western Canada right now, firefighters can't do much more than let them run their course, according to an expert in risk management.

"When you see, in the news, these towering columns of black smoke, there's nothing that can be done except get out of the way," Al Beaver told The Current's guest host Ioanna Roumeliotis.

"Manage your exposure — for your community, your people — get them out of the way of that," said Beaver, who worked on fire management for governments in Canada and Australia and is now an independent consultant.

A helicopter flies past a large plume of smoke rising from a wildfire near Fraser Lake, B.C., on Aug. 15, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

B.C. Premier John Horgan declared a state of emergency last week, but hundreds of wildfires still rage across the province, covering huge swathes of Western Canada in smoke that is visible from space.

While the smoke poses a health risk for the public, Beaver said it can also stymie suppression efforts, by limiting the tactics that firefighters can use.

"Current fire suppression technology is vastly inferior to the extremes of nature," he said, adding that there are no fire-season-ending events on the near horizon.

"They need rain," he said.

How to fight fire? Take away the fuel

Periods of hot and dry weather have been followed by cooler, wetter spells — back and forth — for years, Beaver said.

There are fewer fires in those cooler cycles, and greater success in suppressing what few fires there are.

That means when the dry spells returns, fuel for more fires are found on the ground. Human construction, particularly wood-framed houses, add what is essentially more kindling.

Apocalyptic scenes in B.C. wildfire zones

4 years ago
Duration 5:35
There are apocalyptic scenes inside B.C. wildfire zones, as heavy smoke has turned day into night and forced people who haven't relocated to stay in their homes.

"Basically you're now building your home out of more fuel," he said.

"And then we like to landscape it with more fuel again, around that particular fuel property."

This approach, coupled with the build-up of dry material, creates a "fuel landscape," he said, where fire can more easily spread.

When fire does strike and clear an area, Beaver argued that we should seize the opportunity to reshape that landscape by using "the right materials, the right design, the right distance between each property."

Clearing that "fuel landscape" is our best bet to limit the damage of future fires, he argued.

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

Produced by The Current's Julie Crysler, Richard Raycraft and Noushin Ziafati.


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