Active Wildfires Cause Intense Feelings for Research Forest Manager

July 18, 2017
This article was written by Ken Day, Manager, Alex Fraser Research Forest

On Friday afternoon July 7, 2017 I was sitting at my desk, looking at a dark sky with concern.  “Looks like a stormy sky” I thought.  Returning to my work on the computer screen I didn’t hear a dry lightning storm go through the central Cariboo, touching off numerous wildfires.  On my next circuit through the office I looked out the opposite window.  What I saw set off a week of intense feelings.

Astonishment:  How did that mushroom cloud happen above Sugarcane?

Fear:  My email tells me there are starts near the Research Forest and the Community Forest – where are they and what are they doing to us?

Relief:  Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz and her research crew are back from Dipping Road west of Williams Lake and they haven’t seen any smoke there. I can’t find any smoke in the Knife Creek Block of the Research Forest.

Anxiety:  Jon Gaztelumendi reports smoke at several places in the Gavin Lake Block.  He needs help and I’m on my way.  Fire Danger is extreme today at the Gavin weather station, and fire behaviour may be aggressive.  Call Don Skea on his last day of vacation and get him into the office to roll the fire trailer.  Fire starts around the City of Williams Lake are threatening friends and family.

Appreciation:  all my staff cancelled their weekend plans and came back to work to get out on initial attack.  We worked late into the night to assess what we are facing and put out one spot fire.  Mike Tudor welcomed us at Gavin Lake at 1:00 a.m., fed us some late dinner and gave us beds.

Trepidation:  It became clear to me on Saturday morning that we were in for a long haul, and we didn’t have the guns for the fight.  Several big fires are burning in a complex of fires and we don’t have the resources we need to make much of a dent.  However, given the number of interface fires around Williams Lake I know we will be a low priority.  Start calling our contractors for support – we need water tenders and danger tree fallers.  We report to BC Wildifire Service (BCWS) with fire locations and our action plans.

Support:  Kiley Green is in the office early Saturday morning and managing logistics for us.  Paul Lawson and Jeremy Watkins from Malcolm Knapp Research Forest are on their way with their fire truck.  I am appreciating the depth of experience within my staff, with wildfire expertise from BC, Spain and New Mexico.  All the experienced staff are taking inexperienced folks under their wings, and providing me helpful advice.

Anxiety:  Wherever we choose to work we have fire behind us.  There is so much smoke in the air we have a hard time telling what’s burning in the distance.  We need to concentrate our efforts somewhere, so we start on the east and north flanks of the fire north of Timothy Lake, where the head of the fire will be if we get our usual winds.  Weather is good now, but we only have forecasts from the web at this point.  Let’s get some fireguard laid out in hopes we can get some equipment working.

Weariness:  A couple of days of pouring our guts out doesn’t seem to be showing much result.

Joy:  Big Lake Fire Hall is now a response centre, and Dan Taudin-Chabot is the Incident Commander for BCWS.  Industry response and allocation of equipment is being coordinated in Big Lake. Two bulldozers arrive on lowbeds for us, and a feller-buncher is coming.  Yahoo!

Conflict:  My wife wants to leave Williams Lake and tells me I need go come home to leave with my family.  I can’t leave my team and this task.  I hope she’ll forgive me eventually!

Surprise:  When I lay out a fireguard to the north shore of Timothy Lake I see smoke rising on the far shore.  Oh my, there is a fire where we didn’t see one just the other day.  After driving around the lake, I find it is substantial and burning at our backs if we have a wind from the south.

Inadequacy:  More resources are heading our way in the form of Initial Attack crews from BCWS, equipment and line locators.  I’ve reached the limits of my experience and knowledge and we need more management support.  I want BCWS to take these fires on.

Relief:  Kyle Gillich is the BCWS Divisional Supervisor for our fire complex – I can work with him, and he’s finding a way to integrate us with his IA crews.  We are making good progress on all our fires.

Disappointment:  The wind is up, and we’ve been evacuated from the fireline because the helicopters can’t fly now.  An Evacuation Order is in place for Big Lake and we have to go.

Guilt:  I travel to Kamloops via Prince George to reunite with my family.  We are all safe and for that I give thanks.  Friends and strangers everywhere are generous with their offers of support.  I can’t stop feeling like I ran away when things got tough.  How can I get back on the fireline?

Pride:  I am so proud of my team, the work we did and the way we engaged with BCWS.  I couldn’t wish for a better group of people with whom to spend a very intense week.  We spend a night together in the evacuation centre at UNBC, and make some plans to get back to our family and friends.

Photos from Williams Lake

Photos by Paul Lawson & Ken Day