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Fire: A Brief History

Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories of BC's Worst Forest Fires

By Keith Keller

Review By Carla Burton

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 142-143 Summer-Autumn 2004  | p. 304-8

HERE ARE TWO BOOKS about fire: both histories and both well-researched and insightful, but both completely different in scope and content. Stephen Pyne’s book, Fire: A Brief ‘History‘, presents a long-term history of fire from an ecological and cultural perspective. The book covers a vast temporal and geographical scale, measured in epochs and millennia, and traversing the entire globe. Keith Keller’s book, Wildfire Wars, in contrast, details the human and environmental elements of ten of the most horrific forest fires that have occurred in recent times in British Columbia, dating over a span of decades, from 1931 to 1998. 

Pyne defines three distinct “Fires” in the earth’s history. The First Fire is the natural fire – sparked by lightning and other natural phenomena that began probably in the early Devonian, some 400 million years ago, when biomass began to accumulate and dry to the point that it would burn. It has shaped the evolution of species and the formation of many different habitats, including those used by humans since their beginnings. The Second Fire is anthropogenic: it came about when humans learned to capture, kindle, and control their own fires, using the fuels of their environments. These two Fires co- existed and intermingled with each other until the last part of the Holocene – namely, the time of the Industrial Revolution. Then the Third Fire – potentially the most destructive – was born, with the discovery of vast deposits of fossil biomass: coal, oil, and gas, a hydrocarbon legacy that accumulated from long-ago photosynthesis of the Carboniferous and Mesozoic conifers, ferns, equisetums, and other vegetation. Some of these plants burned in the First Fire, but most of them fell, decayed, and became compressed and converted into the fossil fuels we now depend upon so heavily. According to Pyne, “Humans have exhumed fossil biomass and are burning it on such an immense scale that combustion and fire regimes now extend across geological time. What failed to burn in the old Earth is burning in the modern” (14). 

Pyne is a world authority on the history of fire. He writes with passion, energy, and imaginative inquiry, and with an academic scrutiny as sharp as a knife. Keller, on the other hand, captures the drama of firefighting and the heroism of individuals in a personal, journalistic style, using archival sources, newspaper accounts, and interviews with those who were there to tell his stories. Pyne’s book presents a compelling account of how fire evolved along with humankind and the ways in which humans have harnessed it to their advantage. Fire has been the major ecosystem-level management tool for food production, assisting humans in the tasks of clearing forests, creating and maintaining grasslands for animal forage, breaking down organic materials, reducing pests, and promoting the vigorous resprouting and productivity of certain fire-adapted berry species and other food plants. Even the Third Fire – industrial fire – has provided us with tremendous energy to run our machines and engines, build our modern cities and global transportation systems, and operate our agricultural equipment, enabling us to farm on massive scales. The Third Fire comes with an enormous price, however, with the consequences of its harnessing ranging from pollution of groundwater, ocean, and atmosphere to global climate change due to excessive production of the so-called “greenhouse gases”: water vapour (H20), carbon dioxide (C02), methane (CH ), nitrous oxide (N20), and ozone (O ). These are produced naturally, but burning from the Third Fire has added significantly to their levels. 

Keller’s book may not be so thought-provoking intellectually as Pyne’s, but it has more of a personal touch, being strongly rooted in the day-by-day and even hour-by-hour accounts of specific wildfires, told through the descriptions and words of those who lived through them. His documentation for each event was gleaned through archival research (newspaper reports and photographs), interviews with firefighters, and anecdotal recollections of landowners. He reports on the McKinney Fire of 1931 near Oliver, the great Vancouver Island fire of 1938, the i960 Midday Fire near Merritt, the 1967 Hound Fire near Lumby, the infamous Invermere Fires of 1985, and the Silver Creek Fire near Salmon Arm in 1998. (This last fire prompted Premier Glen Clark to declare British Columbia’s first “state of emergency.”) Keller also chronicles some major fires in the northern part of the province: the 1971 Tee Fire near Liard Hot Springs, the 1982 explosive Eg Fire along the Liard River, the 1983 Swiss Fire near Houston, and the Red Deer Creek Fire of 1987. Prior to i960, since the northern part of the province was largely inaccessible to logging, little economic value was attached to the forests. Forest fires, even when detected, were frequently ignored. However, as northern timber stands have become accessible and hence of economic value, increasing attention has been paid to controlling them. 

In these ten narratives Keller focuses on the awful, destructive powers of the fires, vividly painting the human struggles to control forces far beyond the ken of most of us. He introduces the reader to the individuals who battled the blazes from every level, from the top brass of the Forest Ministry to those who dropped into the fire zone – some who risked their lives in heroic acts, others who simply survived through chance or fate. Inevitably, government bureaucracy, personality clashes, and conflicting approaches in the forest industry complicated many of these situations. Keller also traces, through these stories, the development of fire detection and firefighting technologies, from the use of bulldozers (“cats”) to create firebreaks to the aerial application of fire retardants and the use of airborne “Rapattack” crews to stop a fire before it can spread. In fact, one of the most important developments in the fight against forest fires was the use of air support. By the late 1950s Stearman crop-dusting biplanes were in wide use, and, according to BC Forest Service employee John Weinard, they were effective “if you could get two or three working together on a smallish fire” (77). However, since many fires were not “smallish,” planes with more water-carrying capacity were clearly needed. By 1959 Dan Mclvor had negotiated the purchase of four Martin Mars flying boats, which were being sold as scrap by the US Navy. These four planes formed the backbone of a new business, Forest Industries Flying Tankers Limited. Two of the original Martin Mars planes are still in use today, based out of Sproat Lake on Vancouver Island. As well, helicopters are now widely used for reconnaissance and for dropping water at strategic points. 

For those who have lived in or near British Columbia in the summers of 2003 and 2004, Keller’s accounts may seem both dated and prophetic. Horrendous as the fires described in the book were, the fires of these past two years have been some of the worst on record in terms of the resources required to control them and the number of people directly affected by them. Yet all major fires or fire years seem to have their own superlatives – in area burned, erratic behaviour, dollars spent, or number of homes lost. Even though the fires of 2003 and 2004 are not described in Keller’s book, it provides the opportunity to compare, from many perspectives, our most recent forest fires with his historical accounts of earlier remarkable fires. 

It is notable that, in terms of fire-fighting techniques and equipment and the selection and training of fire crews, things have changed little. Each fire has evoked similar responses from fire bosses, fire crews, the government, fire victims, the media, and the general public. Fire bosses have always had to find firefighters and firefighting equipment and convince government bureaucrats and the general public that their firefighting strategies were sound. Firefighters have always faced smoke, heat, exhaustion, and life-threatening situations, resulting, sadly, in some fatalities. Unlike their predecessors, however, firefighters in the last two decades have been mostly professionals who have been rigorously trained before going out on a fire. In the early days of firefighting, people were conscripted, or “blue-slipped” on the spot to fight fires, some against their will. Today’s firefighters are also more fortunate in that many of their counterparts in the 1930s were never paid for their work. 

The government has always been faced with how to allocate funds to fight forest fires, pay firefighters, and provide support to the victims of the fire. The homeowners who lost property in 2003 were more fortunate than were those in the McKinney Fire of 1931, who received no public compensation for their losses. At that time the Forest Branch’s mandate “required it to protect crown timber, not private property” (28). The media have always reported fires in an exciting manner, providing the public with human interest stories, spectacular photography, and eye-catching headlines. In 1938 journalist “Torchy” Anderson of the Vancouver Daily Province described the demise of Forbes Landing Hotel forty-eight hours before it actually burned. Sixty-five years later the Vancouver Province sensationalized the fires around Kelowna by reporting stories from what they called “Ground Zero.” The general public has always responded to these stories with excitement and enthusiasm. 

Although these two books differ in approach and scope, there is an area of convergence. Keller’s fires were started in various ways, with causes ranging from “unknown” to arson, careless camping, sparks from logging equipment, and lightning. In all cases, however, the initial flame spread rapidly due to extended periods of hot dry weather; high fuel loads from logging slash, deadfalls, or fire suppression; and high winds that fanned the flames. As documented by Pyne, in the past across North America (and in many other parts of the world) indigenous peoples burned over certain landscapes periodically, usually in fall or spring, maintaining more open habitats with less undergrowth and “fuel load” to burn during the dry season. These human-lit fires (Second Fire), as well as lightning-ignited fires (First Fire), would burn themselves out without human intervention, effectively reducing the probability of setting off enormous and hot-burning wildfires such as those described by Keller. Indigenous forest ecologist Dennis Martinez has termed the kind of fires kindled by indigenous peoples to clear out the underbrush as “cool fires,” in contrast to the hot-burning, crown-destroying fires of Keller’s narratives. European newcomers, land managers, and forest service personnel did not appreciate the benefits of the low-level fires ignited by indigenous peoples. 

By the early twentieth century, officials had imposed strict sanctions against intentional indigenous burning and had actively suppressed forest fires of all kinds. In British Columbia and elsewhere, people who tried to burn over areas the way their ancestors did were threatened with imprisonment. By the time forest ecologists began to appreciate that some ecosystems – even forest ecosystems – respond well to certain levels of fire disturbance, and may even require periodic fires to maintain themselves, the widespread suppression of fire had created very different forest structures. 

In a section entitled “Lost Contact: When Fire Departs,” in his second chapter, Pyne describes an outcome of years of fire suppression in the Yellowstone region. Informed by forest ecologists, the US National Park Service reformed its fire policy in 1967-68 with a decision to follow, under an approved set of circumstances, a “let-it-burn” policy in the event of fire ignition. Yellowstone was one of the national parks affected by this new policy, and in 1972 park managers proposed a new program in which natural fires could run their course over large areas of the park. This program was revised but not fully in place when major fires struck in the summer of 1988. After decades of active fire suppression, including the elimination of Aboriginal burning practices, the Yellowstone forests were quite unlike their earlier configurations. There had been a build-up of branches and fallen trees – fuel load – so that when fires started and were allowed to burn as part of the new policy, they burned fiercely and persistently, with far more destructive force than anticipated. These were not the “cool fires” of bygone days. That summer, about 45 percent of the park was burned, with a total of thirty-one fires. There was enormous publicity, with debates about what should have been done and much hindsight interpretation. 

Pyne points to the complexities behind these fires. Yellowstone, he maintains, was being maintained as a natural ecosystem when, in fact, it had been, through and through, an anthropogenic landscape shaped by earlier humans as well as by nature. He describes the probable original landscape, in which indigenous peoples’ fires would have played a large role: “Those fires had likely been thick as mushrooms – fires kindled to drive animals, prune berries, and scour openings; signal fires, camp fires, smudge fires that typically litter aboriginal landscapes and that can, during times of drought, romp over large landscapes” (43). Pyne asks the question, which needs to be considered by many, including British Columbia land managers: “To what extent must even natural reserves include human behaviour?” (43). 

Keller’s epilogue rounds out his book and links it nicely to Pyne’s as it questions the necessity of fighting all forest fires. Clearly, there are developed areas where forest fires will always need to be suppressed because they threaten human lives and property, but the cost of such suppression is increased vigilance and management of fuel accumulation. As scientific research becomes part of the public domain, there is an increasing awareness that forests are more than just trees and that fires are an integral part of maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. Thus many fires should just be left to burn. However, despite our knowledge of forest ecology, and even though today’s firefighters have at their disposal improved predictive powers of fire behaviour and improved techniques for controlling and fighting fires, the decision as to whether a particular forest fire should be allowed to burn or should be suppressed is never an easy one to make. 

Both of these books are informative and thought-provoking. Both are well written, well organized, and readable. We recommend both to BC Studies readers and other scholars, ecologists, foresters, fire scientists, land managers, those concerned with ecological and ecocultural restoration, and the general public.