Skip to main content

In August, B.C. wildfire crews used planned ignitions to keep bigger blazes under control – but may have made one of them worse

In mid-August, with huge swaths of British Columbia consumed by wildfire, firefighting crews in the province’s North Shuswap region made a hard decision: They would intentionally burn a 26-square-kilometre stretch of forest hours before a major wind event, hoping to slow down the raging Lower East Adams Lake wildfire long enough to limit destruction in residential areas.

Officials are now defending that move, as residents of the nearby towns of Lee Creek, Scotch Creek and Celista question whether the planned ignition exacerbated the damage in their communities, rather than lessening it. In the days after the fire, a public workers’ union demanded an investigation, arguing that firefighters’ safety had been compromised.

Video and internal wildfire service incident reports obtained by The Globe and Mail show for the first time how elements of the operation went wrong on the ground, leaving a fire crew trapped for hours by flames.

The documents and images depict a complex operation with ground and aerial components, organized in such a short period of time that, according to the service, crews were forced to proceed without a written plan – something the province’s firefighting policies allow officials to do only in dire situations.

Planned ignitions, also called backburns, are one of the most common and most effective tactics for slowing down or containing a wildfire. They work by consuming fuels – meaning trees, underbrush and other plant materials – in the path of a wildfire, leaving little or nothing to burn.

When the BC Wildfire Service, the part of the province’s Ministry of Forests that handles wildfire suppression, was deciding whether or not to perform the Aug. 17 backburn, a cold front was bearing down on the region. Officials knew it would bring extreme winds that could turn the weeks-old Lower East Adams Lake wildfire into a blowtorch and devastate nearby communities.

They had a small window of time before that happened – only a few hours – and they knew the backburn wouldn’t contain the main wildfire, only potentially slow it down.

The wildfire ultimately destroyed more than 170 homes in the region, located in B.C.’s Southern Interior. The day after the backburn, that fire merged with the Bush Creek wildfire, and forced the evacuation of more than 400 people from a nearby fire camp.

As suspicions about the fire have spread in the local community, residents have begun to organize. At a packed community meeting last month, they took in a presentation from Jim Cooperman, a Shuswap-area author who believes the backburn worsened the wildfire.

B.C.’s Forest Practices Board, an independent forestry watchdog in the province, has opened an investigation into the handling of the fire, separate from the investigation sought by the firefighters’ union, based on a complaint from Mr. Cooperman.

Open this photo in gallery:

Molten metal pools beside a burned vehicle in the Shuswap Lake region on Aug. 23.

Bruce Morrow, an independent wildfire behaviour expert whose past work has included writing wildfire threat assessments for the B.C. government, studied the backburn at the request of residents.

Although Mr. Morrow’s analysis reached no conclusions about whether the burn had worsened the wildfire, he said in an interview that the decision to deliberately set a blaze of that size and intensity may have had the opposite of its intended effect, pulling the main fire toward communities rather than acting as a buffer between them.

“They intentionally made the fire two kilometres closer to the community,” Mr. Morrow said, “which is against all common sense and all practice I’ve ever learned. It was doomed to fail.”

“This is such an extreme situation,” he added, describing the use of an intentional burn so soon before a major wind event. “There’s no win here, and they probably made it worse.”

Despite the controversy, the wildfire service says the burn did what it was intended to do.

“The purpose of this tactic was not to contain the wildfire, but to reduce its intensity and limit impact to a wide area of structures in its projected path,” spokesperson Briana Hill said in a statement. “By this measure, the operation was successful.”

In July, roughly a month before the ill-fated burn to control the Adams Lake fire, The Globe went along with the Alaska Smoke Jumpers for burning operations near Vanderhoof. The goal of such burns is to remove flammable material from the forest floor before the main fire gets there.
The morning after, firefighters went through with drip torches to ‘clean up’ some of the leftover fuel, and hoses to wet down the black areas where the main fire might spread.

Wildfire activity across B.C.’s Interior in the days between Aug. 17 and 20 was unprecedented. The wildfire season, as a whole, was the most destructive in recorded Canadian history. Across the country, more than 184,000 square kilometres burned, almost three times the previous all-time record and far more than the 10-year average of 27,000 square kilometres. This past summer in B.C., more than 25,000 square kilometres went up in flames, hundreds of homes were lost and thousands of residents were forced to evacuate. In all of Western Canada, eight firefighters were killed on the job, including six in B.C.

On the 17th, as the fire approached the towns in North Shuswap, along the northern edge of Shuswap Lake, the BC Wildfire Service was monitoring forecasts and modelling.

Some of those modelling details are contained in a presentation the service plans to deliver to the Forest Practices Board as part of its investigation. The service shared that presentation with The Globe.

Ben Boghean, a fire behaviour specialist with the service, said the organization’s internal modelling at the time showed that, if left unchecked, the fire would likely burn into Lee Creek. A different model showed the blaze would have a 20-to-40-per-cent chance of engulfing Scotch Creek by midnight on Aug 18. A backburn wouldn’t necessarily prevent that from happening, but the service hoped it would mitigate the damage.

The fire danger in the area at the time was extremely high. Crews had already seen a smaller wind event between Aug. 15 and 16 – a day before the cold front was due to hit – drive the wildfire to spread nearly twice as fast as worst-case-scenario modelling had predicted it would.

“What our models predicted the fire would do in two days, it did in under 24 hours,” Mr. Boghean said.

Open this photo in gallery:

Thermal imaging from Aug. 16 shows the smoke column from the Lower Adams Lake fire. Scans such as this gave firefighters more information on weather factors and the fire's growth.BC Wildfire Service/AFP via Getty Images

The window to accomplish the Aug. 17 planned ignition before the cold front moved in was small – only a few hours. As wildfire service information officer Forrest Tower explained in a public video briefing on the day of the burn, the service expected local winds could become erratic starting some time around 5 p.m., well before the cold front’s expected arrival.

The wildfire service’s policies for planned ignitions around wildfires say that small-scale burns can be done with plans communicated verbally to people involved. But large-scale operations with added complexity, such as the need to co-ordinate ground and aerial resources, need to be documented with written burn plans, and they require oversight by certified ignitions specialists. In exceptional circumstances, the service is allowed to sidestep some of these requirements, with the approval of senior wildfire leadership.

The wildfire service has said that in this instance there was no time to create a written burn plan. When asked who the ignitions specialist for the backburn was, and what certifications they hold, the service said in a statement that “there were several people trained and qualified in advanced ignition operations on this incident.”

Open this photo in gallery:

To conduct a controlled burn, like this one in Cranbrook on April 26, firefighters in B.C. must usually write up a plan with modelling of how the fire might respond.

Mark Healey, the incident commander for the fire, said this was the first time in his 32-year career that he had overseen a burn of this size without a written plan.

But he said the ignition was carried out in close consultation with the local fire centre manager, and with clear verbal instructions to everyone involved.

“All the personnel involved in that operation were very, very clear and distinct about how we were doing this, why we were doing this,” he said.

According to incident reports obtained by The Globe, the aerial portion of the ignition began at around 4 p.m. A heli-torch – a large tank slung beneath a helicopter that drips burning jelly onto treetops – was used to set fire to a 10-kilometre-long stretch of forest along a corridor of power lines south of the main fire, north of Lee Creek and northwest of Scotch Creek.

The corridor was intended to act as a fire guard and keep the backburn from spreading south. Ground crews had been positioned along the way.

At around 6 p.m. crews began lighting the southern edges of the ignition area on fire by hand with drip torches, while a helicopter hovered overhead. The plan was to let the existing southerly winds push fire from the backburn uphill and northwest, toward the main Lower East Adams Lake wildfire and away from Lee Creek and Scotch Creek.

But two hours after ground crews started burning with drip torches, according to the incident report, a helicopter co-ordinator hovering overhead reported seeing fire from the aerial ignition moving east toward crews, instead of west, away from their control line.

Asked about this apparent reversal in wind direction, the wildfire service said in a statement that erratic local winds in that area had interacted with the topography of the Lee Creek Valley, and caused the fire to reverse direction.

Ground crews were ordered to evacuate, but a team of five Brazilian firefighters, part of a large international contingent that had travelled to B.C. to help with the summer’s fires, were cut off from their escape route for hours. Video obtained by The Globe shows them inside their truck surrounded by thick smoke and flames. They remained trapped from 8:15 p.m. until 11:10 p.m.

A team of Brazilian firefighters recorded their failed attempt to escape the Aug. 17 fire, offering grim words of encouragement. 'It was good being with you guys. But let's keep that going, okay?'

Mr. Boghean said that when the cold front arrived around 11 p.m., as modelling had predicted it would, the devastation across the region was extreme. The fire damaged part of Lee Creek, devastated significant portions of Scotch Creek and burned all the way east to Celista.

The nearby Bush Creek wildfire, which did not have any backburns during this time, was driven 24 kilometres, sometimes moving at a speed of more than two kilometres an hour. It destroyed dozens of buildings, and forced the evacuation of a nearby fire camp of more than 400 people.

In the days after the fire, wildfire service officials repeatedly described the backburn as a success, claiming that it had helped to save many homes, especially in Lee Creek. They said much of the destruction in the region had been caused by three spot fires that were already burning before the planned ignition. Those fires, the service said, fanned out under the cold front’s extreme winds.

“I want to be perfectly clear: That planned ignition saved hundreds of homes and properties along the North Shuswap,” BC Wildfire Service director of operations Cliff Chapman told reporters on Aug. 21, four days after the incident.

Debris from the Bush Creek wildfire lies around the lakeshore on Aug. 23. In the preceding days, the B.C. Wildfire Service described the Aug. 17 planned ignitions as a success that prevented more destruction.
On Aug. 23, a BCWS crew works to control the the Bush Creek fire’s flank in Turtle Valley, while a BC Hydro crew repairs damaged power lines.

In the days after the operation, the BC General Employees’ Union, which represents BC Wildfire Service firefighters, sent a letter to provincial Forests Minister Bruce Ralston expressing concern about how the planned ignition had been handled, and asking for assurances that the service would conduct a joint investigation with the union.

“Given the gravity of the situation in placing our members at risk … we are requesting that the ministry ensure the investigation receives all the resources required for success,” union treasurer Paul Finch wrote.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe, includes the unusual request that the incident management team in charge of the fire be immediately stood down and prevented “from interfacing with wildfire crews while the preliminary investigation is being conducted.”

The wildfire service said in a statement that this stand-down didn’t happen.

Ms. Hill, the service spokesperson, said Worksafe BC, the provincial workplace safety agency, was already investigating the incident before the union’s letter was sent, as it does whenever a serious incident or near-miss happens.

Mr. Finch declined a request for an interview. In a statement, the union said it “became aware of the incident from wildfire members. We demanded a joint investigation, and we will be analyzing the results of that investigation. Our priority is occupational health and safety for all workers.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Charred glass bottles lie at the recycling depot in Scotch Creek after the August fire.

At the same time, the wildfire service was facing significant pressure from frustrated local residents, many of whom said they felt abandoned by the service and had been forced to fight fires on their properties alone.

The conflict, exacerbated by suspicions about the backburn, reached its height when wildfire crews reported having garbage thrown at them by angry locals. A group of residents from nearby communities organized a convoy of vehicles and planned to overwhelm an RCMP roadblock preventing them from accessing their homes, which were at this point in an evacuation zone. The tensions flared so much that the wildfire service temporarily pulled its fire crews from the area, citing safety concerns.

“It’s blatantly obvious what happened,” said Mr. Cooperman, the resident whose complaint to the Forest Practices Board led it to begin its investigation into the wildfire service’s handling of the fire. Mr. Cooperman lost much of the forest on his land, but not his home, to the blaze. “They were basically lighting a massive fire, knowing the wind was going to switch,” he added.

Mr. Cooperman and others sent video, photos and a timeline of what they say occurred during the fire to Mr. Morrow, the fire behaviour expert. Mr. Morrow toured the burn site himself in early October, and wrote a draft assessment that raises questions about how the planned ignition was handled.

In his opinion, the ignition did not meet the basic principles for a responsibly controlled burn.

Mr. Morrow concluded the size of the burn was too large, and the window of favourable winds too short, for the operation to have been conducted successfully. The power corridor that fire crews used as their control line had gaps in it and was not properly cleared of fuel, his assessment says.

The decision to use a heli-torch for aerial ignition was also irresponsible, Mr. Morrow said. That strategy often creates a fire that burns through a forest’s crown with such intensity that in this case it may have pulled the main fire toward communities, he found.

“You don’t do Hail Marys when people’s houses are involved. You just don’t,” Mr. Morrow said.

Wildfires and climate change: More from The Globe and Mail

In the 2023 wildfire season, Canada’s forests emitted more greenhouse gases than all its industries combined. On this episode of The Decibel, research scientist Werner Kurz explained what that means for the climate and how we can lessen the damage in future seasons. Subscribe for more episodes.

Australia’s volunteer ‘firies’ offer lessons on taming wildfires in Canada

How does wildfire smoke affect air quality and your health?

How to manage climate-related anxiety and stress

As Canada’s boreal forests burn again and again, they won’t grow back the same way

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe