One Day on the Front Lines of BC’s Out-of-Control Wildfires

A “piddly garden hose” is no match for a 114,000 hectare blaze near Prince George. An excerpt from ‘Chasing Smoke.’

by Aaron Williams
Oct 27 2017, 7:02pm

All photos by Aaron Williams

I'm on the first barge over to the Chelaslie River fire the next morning with the machine operators, who are nervous about their equipment, which was abandoned in haste yesterday afternoon.

As we cross, the operators scan the southern shore of the lake looking for some indication their machines are all right. The initial signs look good. The timber is still green. Beyond that, smoke hangs murky above the trees.

Everything is fine. At its closest, fire found the edge of safety zones where equipment was parked. The fire didn't run too far over our hose trail, but far enough to force us out and start work on a new plan. We drag what's left of the hose off the trail, roll it up and move it to a new spot a few kilometres to the west. Kara drives us there. We're eating chips. She requests a water and Tabes, a stranger to the back seat, cracks one open and passes it to her. This is the first time Kara's driven the truck this year. Eventually she cracks.

"This is the best day ever!" she says as she reaches back for a handful of chips.

Once the hose is moved we start in on a new plan, a tactic we've heard of but never used or seen before. We're calling it Superguard. Bulldozers and excavators will push in a regular guard. Then the operators will turn their machines ninety degrees and push the guard out another thirty metres or so. The result is a cat guard about five times wider than normal. Its dimensions are similar to those of a soccer pitch, only it goes on for kilometres.

Superguard makes us feel small, a theme on this fire. Water is the one tool we use that gives us a sense of power. Hosing from a guard or a hose trail is where ground crews like us accomplish the most relative to all the machinery working the air and the ground. Superguard has erased that sense of power. If anything's going to stop this fire, it's going to be the obscene width of this guard, not our piddly garden hose.

Once we've laid hose out along the Superguard, I go start the pumps. Time to test what we've assembled. We're pumping from another lake, one that has a wide grassy meadow leading to its edge. It's bigger and bluer, more inviting than the fire-choked sludge pond we were pumping from yesterday. A breeze moves through the parched yellow meadow grass and the air coming off the water is clean and crisp. I sit down on the bank, the first time my mind and body have been shut down all day. In less than a minute my eyes start to close. I stand up and pull the pump's starter cord and it starts easy.

There are helicopters bucketing from the lake. An orange bucket hits the water with a crash and sinks in a geyser of bubbles. It rests underwater for a second before the line is pulled taut and the chopper shudders with the effort of lifting it into the air. The helicopters, once flashy with frequent washing, now show their own signs of fatigue, their tail booms dark with the residue of exhaust.

According to a BC Forest Service newsletter, helicopters were first used for firefighting in BC in 1956. That was when an early model Bell helicopter dropped a 225-kilogram payload of fire retardant on a small fire started by a lightning strike. There was no bucket for these drops; instead something called a "#10 size bag" was filled with a gallon of fire retardant. These bags were launched by hand from the back seat of the machine. On aiming the bags, the newsletter says it was "imperative to...keep one's eye on the target." It further explains difficulties caused by "violent updrafts which occur on the mountainsides during a hot summer afternoon."

One thing hasn't changed—the worry about the cost. But, like seeing ten-cent coffee on an old diner menu, the cost back then seems quaint—$100 an hour to operate the machine. These days a mid-size helicopter hires out for around $4,000 an hour.

As I'm walking up to the second pump in the line, a woman from another crew heads down to the meadow. A unit crew from Williams Lake is pumping water out of this lake as well. The loud pumps negate any need for a greeting between the two of us. She has good posture and I can see the curve of her red lips. I haven't thought about curves, or lips, or women for a long time. Here is one. Walking through this big empty meadow, staring straight ahead. For a few delusional seconds my thoughts turn to the most improbable scenarios involving me and the Woman in the Meadow. Then consciousness rushes in and I remember a lot of things, like the fact that I'm in a relationship. I swallow my lust and wave. Her return wave is decisively cold.

As I walk back across the meadow, an Electra bomber appears low over the treetops on the other side of the lake. There's talk on the radio. Dan is near the water bombers and has to move his group out of the area. I realize there's a ton of smoke coming out of the forest near our old hose trail, and it's leaning toward Dan's group.

The Electra makes a few passes, each one slower and lower. It looks tired in the air. The bird-dog plane that guides it seems to be dragging it by an invisible leash while the big plane moans along behind. The two planes circle around and fly lower again. On the final pass the Electra is so impossibly close to the ground that it disappears into the trees. It's hard to believe it hasn't crashed, and even the noise stops for a second and is replaced by the steady piston throbbing of our water pumps. I stare at the horizon and don't breathe. After what feels like several minutes, the Electra resurfaces, arcing into the blue sky with a thundering roar and the last of the red retardant misting off its tail. The mechanical glory of all this is as stimulating as anyone's good posture or red lips.

The fire doesn't make any aggressive moves toward us and the day ends uneventfully. There's talk of burning off from the Superguard. There's also talk of cutting a hose trail off the Superguard. We've never been involved in a fire so decidedly infinite. We seem to have been dropped into the middle of something eternal, a battle that was being fought long before we arrived and that will continue long after. We don't think about how to stop this fire, but rather how to set things up for somebody else to stop this fire.

In the evening we shovel food in as fast as we can. It hits my mouth and it feels like my stomach is going to reach up and grab it before it's been chewed. I finish dinner and do several laps of the cereal shelf.

First a bowl of Froot Loops, then several more bowls of Froot Loops. Partway through my second bowl, somebody gets up from the table and I move out of the way and spill half the bowl all over myself. Milk and cereal cover my lap. I do nothing about it, and nobody makes a fuss. Out here it doesn't matter that my pants are soaked in milk and it doesn't matter that Froot Loops are ground into my pants. Like the fatigue shown in the exhaust and retardant stains on the aircraft working this fire, I too am tired and don't care about comfort or appearances.

From the book Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir, © 2017, by Aaron Williams. Published by Harbour Publishing. Reprinted with permission of the publisher