Firefighting crews have had their hands full with a hot, dry summer
Two forest fires, both only five kilometres from Labrador City and Wabush, raged within two days of each other but the incredible hard work of local emergency groups quickly snuffed them out.
© Photo by Ty Dunham/The Aurora
Labrador City and Wabush firefighters watch a water bomber spray a fire along a transmission line near Blueberry Hill.
A fire northwest of Labrador City, near Smokey Mountain, began Saturday, June 28, and another began Monday, June 30 near Blueberry Hill causing the popular cabin location to be evacuated. Both fires were controlled within the day.
The Department of Natural Resources worked alongside firefighters from Labrador City and Wabush as well as officers with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to ensure residents didn’t experience the same smoke-filled summer as last year.
With over 20 years experience, conservation officer Chuck Porter supervises the crews, but was quick to say he takes no credit extinguishing the fires.
“It’s those guys out there on the ground walking around in 30 plus degree heat, lugging around water pumps, and the guys up in the air. They’re doing the hard part.”
It’s been a hot, dry summer for Labrador West so far, and so Porter and his team have been anticipating fires, ready to call in additional resources.
“We can tell when the conditions are prime for a forest fire to start. Given the past week, that’s exactly been the case.”
The initial attack on a forest fire is the best prevention to it spreading, Porter said. Getting there within a few minutes is key to extinguishing the fire quickly.
“You do the best you can, try to get enough people power available and enough resources in the air such as helicopters and water bombers. If you get enough of those together armed with the knowledge of the fire weather index, you can usually put things out quite quickly so it doesn’t spread and go on weeks like we saw last year.”
When the department receives a call they first check the validity, and once a fire is confirmed ground crews or ground and aerial crews are immediately dispatched.
The water bombers and helicopters are the first to attack the fire.
“Ground crews cannot go in with a fire hose. Sometimes the general public may ask why we’re not just going in with a fire hose, but you cannot station someone in front of the fire,” Porter said.
The water bomber drops a mixture of foam and water, and the helicopter can deliver over 100 gallons of water. Both can operate hours before refueling, but water bombers cannot pick up at every lake as they may be too shallow. So if there is a long turnaround before they can drop water, a second water bomber will be called to the area.
“To watch the water bomber pilots from the ground is amazing enough, to see what they do and the way they judge the wind and the landscape and drop the water and foam is incredible.”
Porter said to see it from the air is even more amazing.
“A person on the ground cannot picture what’s going on in the sky when you’re carting around this humungous water bomber full of water.”
The pilot must half-land it in a lake and pick up all the water and carefully drop it onto the fire.
“I’ve seen them do artwork with their drops, and the same thing with the helicopter pilots. I’ve seen them swing it under covered bridges and it’s incredible what they can do because they’re trained and are so experienced.”
Once the fire is knocked down sufficiently and a safe environment has been established, ground crews slip and perform a ‘mop up’ of the area, extinguishing hot spots with back tanks, water pumps, or shovels.
But just because it’s safe enough for the ground crews doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It’s brutal. The heat is around them and the ground is hot, and there are literal flames around them sometimes. There are times when it gets too hot and I’ll make a call when everyone has to come off because it’s too unsafe.”
When the hot spots are taken care of Porter’s team monitors it for days by walking the ground, as it takes only one hot spot for the fire to begin again.
Porter said when the job is done and property is saved, it’s rewarding.
“I’ve seen the looks of these guys’ faces at the end of the day when we have our talks, and if they lose personal property or a structure it really hurts. But when they put stuff out very quickly it really feels good.”
As it is with many demanding jobs, the gratitude from the public pushes the crews to keep going.
“It has a tremendous affect when people, whether it’s on Facebook or whatever, credit the firefighters. Someone sent us a picture a few days ago of a painting on a rock thanking the firefighters. Stuff like that from the public really makes a difference; I see it on their faces.”
But getting the job done is rewarding enough, Porter said, and if there is anything he’d like to see from the general public it’s the knowledge of how easy it is to start a fire in extreme conditions.
Porter has seen first-hand cigarette butts stomped into the ground and thought to be snuffed out start up again two or three days later.
“I’ve seen it many times, especially campfires. People throw water on it or their unfinished cup of tea and think there’s no flame. The very next day or two days after it’s smoldering and a little wind blows an ember off.”
Porter said over 80 per cent of wildfires are caused by humans.
“When people go into a wooden area, whether it’s their cabin or a hike or on a fishing trip or an ATV ride, they have to realize how easy it is to get a fire going. If it is extremely dry and they don’t have to have an ATV ride or a cigarette in the woods they shouldn’t, because the consequences can be catastrophic.”
Smokey the Bear’s popular catchphrase of “only you can prevent forest fires” has become a cliché when it comes to fire safety, but Porter said its message rings true.
“It’s hard to educate everyone. We have a responsibility to educate each other and our children that you cannot be careful enough.”