Fighting fire with fire on Eagle Bluff

Fighting fire with fire on Eagle Bluff

BC Wildfire crew member Rene Allain searches for hot spots in the area along Wolfcub Road, a forest service road used to corral the Eagle Bluff fire into a more workable area on Tuesday. (Photo by Dale Boyd)

By Dale Boyd

A BC Wildfire crew heads out to address hot spots in the Eagle Bluff fire. (Photo by Dale Boyd)

As the smoke clears, the skies return to their default blue and day-to-day life returns to normal for the residents of Oliver. But the fight is far from over for BC Wildfire crews working in the deep, forested terrain where the Eagle Bluff fire continues to burn just below the surface. 

Drought conditions this summer bring dry, combustible material deeper into the ground “so when a fire runs through the surface it also gets embedded into the lower layers of the ground and will continue burning,” said Andre Chalabi, BC Wildfire Operations Section Chief for the Eagle Bluff Fire. 

Around 10 to 15 millimetres of rain helped bring the visible surface fire down, bringing a sigh of relief to property owners no longer on evacuation alert in the McKinney Road area, however, “the fire will continue to burn underneath until further action is taken,” Chalabi said. 

Local media toured the fire line Tuesday along Wolfcub Road, a forest service road reaching in to the forested areas east of Oliver. Crews worked with planned ignitions over the past few days to bring the fire to the road, burning strategic sections of the area to bring the fire to a more beneficial front line, of sorts, like a man-made forestry service road. 

The road acts as a barrier “in areas (where) we have a better chance of stopping a fire,” Chalabi said, with black, sooted forest floor behind him on one side of the road, acting as a “fuel break,” and green grass and trees on the other. 

“This is basically mimicking the natural fire occurrences in the region,” Chalabi said, adding there may be more planned ignitions possibly coming in the future. 

Generally good humoured, if not a bit camera shy, BC Wildfire crew members took a brief moment to chat with reporters touring the fire line, as crews worked their way through the soot-covered terrain searching for hot spots throughout the mountainous terrain. 

“You just wake up and kind of do the same thing … I don’t want to say monotonous, but monotonous sometimes,” said crew member Rene Allain. “Our plans change all the time, it’s always fun, sometimes it’s not, but generally it is.” 

 The Eagle Bluff fire burned in particularly difficult terrain with “rock cliffs, canyons, really steep slopes that all are recipes for hazardous situations,” Chalabi said. “It was really limited how we could actually work the fire safely towards containing it at the early stages.”

That, along with downslope winds in the evenings and over 30 C temperatures during the day, the fire grew over a large area giving BC Wildfire crews a lot of dangerous terrain to tackle. 

In Chalabi’s 15 years with BC Wildfire he has seen a change in fire behaviour, something firefighters are saying more and more around the province. 

“We’re seeing more destructive fires, the numbers don’t lie,” Chalabi said. 

Tactics of firefighting have not fundamentally changed, but “the last couple of years the fire behaviour has become incredible, and that’s a product of sustained, hot weather with lack of rain. Those are the recipes for fire behaviour and extreme fire behaviour.” 

Back in Oliver, the camp hosts 175 firefighters, more than 200 people total, at the Oliver Airport as of Tuesday. The camp faces a different set of logistical challenges than the frontlines. 

The firefighters sleep in camping tents, with some larger tents provided, prompting some offers from locals to host them in beds. The tents are used for practicality and efficiency, and in case of emergency having all the firefighters in one place. 

Chris Fraser is head chef manager for Logistics Camps and Accommodations. He has been at the camp since day one, with a crew of five day-shift and five night-shift cooks putting out three hot meals a day for more 350 people over the first few days of the operation. 

“It’s 24-7, it’s been busy and of course we’re out in the elements so that can be a challenge as well,” Fraser said. 

Whether it is chefs, firefighters or fire information officers, one thing was clear – the community of Oliver was welcoming to these protectors of the realm. 

“Lots of donations, pies, cookies, squares, just people offering their time. It’s been really good to see the community kick in together and support one another,” Fraser said.