For The Record- Is BC fighting forest fires the right way?

May 13, 2019- Caden Fanshaw

Former BC Forest Firefighter Jesse Chamberlain above the site of a forest fire outside Puntzi Lake, BC

Again this summer, it seems BC will be facing a problematic wildfire season. As the summers get hotter, drier, and more extreme so does the need for different strategies in dealing with the infernos before they completely wipe out BC’s forests.

Six year veteran BC Forest Firefighter Jesse Chamberlain says it’s time for change in the way the BC Wildfire Service does prevention work.

He says the preventative work BC’s forest firefighters do now is only done when fires aren’t burning, in times like these that’s become a rarity and that’s the stem of a lot of BC’s issues.

“it was a good way for me to give back and provide service to our country for those who can’t do it themselves”

Jesse ChamberlainFormer Forest Firefighter

Is suppression the answer?

For Jesse, wildfire suppression is only a bandaid on a much bigger problem.

The ex-BCWS member said from a first hand basis forests around our province are in bad shape.

BC environmentalists have blamed the pine beetle that swept through the majority of Western Canada and left behind dead tree’s as far as the eye can see in BC’s back country in parts.

For BCWS members the once ‘red and dead’ trees have now become a pile of pickup sticks similar to that of wood stacked prior to a bonfire.

Chamberlain claims the fuel has built up, and getting rid of it is easier said than done.

“The longer I’ve spent doing this job, the more I realize doing back burns and fuel management, and doing more prescribed burns on the landscape has become really important”

Jesse ChamberlainFormer Forest Firefighter

What is back burning?

The BC Wildfire website says prescribed burns or back burning is done mostly for prevention, usually done by local fire crews to clean the excess fuel on the forest floor which lowers the potential for a catastrophic forest fire.

Chamberlain says even with a forest fire in one of those areas, having less fuel on the forest floor makes it far easier to control.

The 20 year old says it’s usually done with a handheld drip torch which contains a mix of diesel and gasoline which is then ignited by a wick placed at the end of the torch when angled downwards.

He did differentiate when things get on a larger scale, a back burn is essential in an effort to contain them and prevent them from spreading further.

“On a smaller scale, a back burn is a way to remove fuels that a growing fire needs to grow… if a fire has fuel, it’s going to grow, it’s going to spread. When the fires grow beyond the capabilities of people, and become very dangerous you’re using helicopters with flamethrowers to do large portions at a time”

Jesse ChamberlainFormer Forest Firefighter

What about health?

It’s no secret, the health of BCWS members is always at risk, whether it be from smoke, or from ash, or from the biggest danger which is actually dead or burnt out danger trees falling throughout the woods all health experts warn civilians when there’s poor air quality.

For Chamberlain and for many others, he feels as though the government isn’t doing near enough for the health of its employees who won’t find out the effects of such a toxic environment until their later years when it’s too late.

“I honestly think they’re turning a bit of a blind eye.”

Jesse ChamberlainFormer Forest Firefighter

The amount of harm the prolonged exposure can cause is incredible. Chamberlain talked about how being in such a place is like taking up smoking for your lungs.

Chamberlain was also adamant the government isn’t doing enough when it comes to protecting their employees.

“I think there’s no question about it, I think long term it’s a very hard thing to do, and I think that’s why the ministry takes physical fitness so seriously, it’s a very dangerous job, it’s not your typical Monday to Friday gig which isn’t very risk adversed and this really is. When you deal with the ash, the smoke, the wildlife, slips, trips, falls, and dehydration”

Jesse ChamberlainFormer Forest Firefighter

Chamberlain added he thinks that the forest firefighters themselves want to think they’re being protected although now on the outside looking in, it’s clear that his lungs have taken a hit.

Chamberlain also added he thinks despite having a mask to protect against some ash and smoke, a better more modern option is needed.