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BC Wildfire Service using ping-pong-sized balls that are dropped from a helicopter to start strategic fires in an attempt to help control wildfires

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A BC Wildfire Service helicopter uses a PSD machine to drop ping-pong ball sized incendiary devices onto an area of the Keremeos Creek wildfire as part of a planned aerial ignition operation on Aug. 16.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

In British Columbia’s southern Okanagan, a helicopter approaches the north flank of what is being called the Keremeos Creek wildfire. By mid-August, it had grown to almost 70 square kilometres and forced hundreds of people to flee their homes.

From the front of the aircraft, Dan Houser, operations section chief with the BC Wildfire Service, or BCWS, radios to the ground crew, confirming that no personnel are below.

He turns to ignitions specialist Kevin Parkinson, who sits behind him straddling a machine that is top-loaded with orange and white spheres that resemble Ping-Pong balls. One leg hangs out of the open helicopter door and rests on the skid.

“Ready to go?”

“Ready to go. Power on.”

Mr. Parkinson flicks a switch to open the feed gate on the machine, which then injects glycol into the balls before dropping them from a chute on to the treed mountainside below. Inside each ball, the glycol combines with potassium permanganate to cause a chemical reaction, igniting into fire that quickly envelop the trees in lapping, orange flames and huge plumes of grey smoke.

The crew is executing a planned ignition to burn off fuels such as grasses, trees and fallen pine needles around the perimeter of the wildfire and control its spread – literally fighting fire with fire. The plastic sphere dispenser, or PSD, machine is one aerial ignition tool that can be used to contain a fire in an area that may be otherwise inoperable, or dangerous for ground crews and heavy equipment operations.

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BC Wildfire Service Ignition Specialist Kevin Parkinson displays PSD machine balls, which are dropped from a helicopter during aerial ignition operations to start strategic fires in an attempt to help control wildfires.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail accompanied the BCWS crew on the planned ignition in mid-August, as a prolonged hot and dry spell throughout Southern B.C. created tinder-dry conditions that increased the risk of new starts and rapid fire growth. The soaring temperatures also rekindled traumas of the previous wildfire season, from which some communities – and the firefighters who fought to protect them – are still reeling.

The Keremeos Creek wildfire, discovered on July 29, is B.C.’s second-largest wildfire this summer, with more than 400 firefighters battling the blaze at its peak. As of Friday, there remained 206 firefighters, 14 helicopters and 20 pieces of heavy equipment on site.

Evacuation orders issued in early August that affected more than 500 properties were rescinded last week when it was determined the fire no longer posed a threat to homes, but its status remains active. Its cause is under investigation.

Wildfire southwest of Penticton, B.C., prompts more evacuation alerts and orders

Mr. Parkinson, who has 28 years of wildfire experience, said extensive planning goes into each ignition. Crews look at current and forecasted weather, how the fire is behaving and how it might change, whether there is sloped or otherwise challenging topography and what kinds of fuels are burning. Coniferous trees (trees with needles), for example, have large amounts of sap in their branches that burn quickly, and the trees typically grow close together, which can fuel an intense wildfire. Meanwhile, deciduous trees (leafy trees) are much less flammable and lack the ladder fuels that allow a fire to climb and spread through tree crowns.

As well, crews consider the potential negative effects that planned ignitions may have on natural or manmade structures or features, such as wildlife habitats, timber values and community watersheds. There are also longer-term consequences to consider: Could an ignition here hurt slope stability, or increase the risk of a landslide? How might a fire affect forest health in coming years?

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BC Wildfire Service Ignition Specialists Kevin Parkinson, left, and Operations Chief Dan Houser inspect a PSD machine.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Deputy incident commander Bryce Moreira said a plan is developed in consultation with an ignition specialist, fire behaviour specialist, ground crews, community and First Nations. It then faces several layers of approval, up to the incident commander.

“There are a lot of checks to make sure that all of those things mentioned have been considered, not just once or twice but multiple times, so that every angle is looked at by a whole team of people,” he said.

Mr. Parkinson said that a planned ignition not only eliminates unburnt fuel near a wildfire, but can also manipulate the fire itself.

All evacuation orders rescinded for Keremeos Creek wildfire near Penticton, B.C.

“On a normal fire, you’ll have an in-draft – the air coming in from the ground and pushing out the smoke column,” he said in an interview at camp at an airport base in Oliver. Behind him, a field was dotted with hundreds of tents – the temporary living accommodations of the firefighters assigned to the fire.

“You can use that in-draft to your advantage: If you light a fire in front of it, it will be sucked into the existing fire, which actually reduces the fire behaviour because you’ve reduced the fuels and it will take longer for that fire to build up again.

“You can also use fire to create a smoke column that maybe shades out the head of the fire [the fastest spreading part of the fire], which will reduce the fire behaviour. You can use fire to lift a smoke column so that air tankers can see clearly at the head of the fire. You can use fire to steer fire in a certain direction if, say, it’s running toward a community.”

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Firefighter tents at a wildfire camp at the airport in Oliver, B.C. At its peak, the Keremeos Creek wildfire had more than 400 firefighters battling the blaze.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Handheld drip-torches offer precision and an ability to control the intensity of a planned ignition, but require that terrain to be safe for crews to access on foot. An aerial ignition with a PSD machine is ideal for low-intensity burns in larger, inaccessible areas, while a heli-torch – a device that hangs from a helicopter and drops flaming, gelled fuel – may be needed to respond to more aggressive wildfires.

At the Keremeos Creek wildfire, the BCWS crew chooses the PSD to respond to the craggy mountainside of pine trees. The technique produces a low-intensity burn that removes surface fuels and slows the spread of the blaze without killing the trees, allowing them to regenerate after the fire.

In certain environments where intense wildfires are frequent, some pine species have developed a thick resin that requires fire to melt and release seeds to germinate.

In preparation for the ignition, firefighters constructed hand guards at the edges of the fire – strategic barriers that help stop the spread of the wildfire and create clean lines within which crews can plan ignitions. It is laborious work, requiring tree fallers to hike along challenging terrain, cut down trees with chainsaws and create breaks in the canopy while fighting heat, gravity and hazards such as falling rocks and trees. Crews then must dig trenches to create a fuel break and capture debris that may fall from the slope.

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BC Wildfire Service firefighters patrol a hand-guard built into a mountainside along the perimeter of the Keremeos Creek wildfire.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Operations chief Ransome Hall describes it as “an insane amount of work,” and a task in which firefighters take a huge amount of pride.

“It is heavy carrying your chainsaw, gasoline, your lunch and water and everything else,” he said. “Now you’re also carrying hose and pumps, all those sorts of things.”

Despite the challenges at Keremeos Creek, the crew acknowledges the incident is well-resourced. Information officer Karley Desrosiers noted that, at this point last summer, after an unprecedented heat dome parched the province and killed more than 600 people, there were already roughly 1,500 wildfires, with more than 7,000 square kilometres of land burned. In comparison, there have been 855 fires this summer as of Thursday, which consumed about 373 square kilometres of land. Resources were stretched thin last year, and some homeowners, feeling failed by the provincial response, defied evacuation orders in efforts to save their properties.

“Last year, it was the feeling of defeat over and over again, and being extremely exhausted – never resting while driving away feeling defeated,” Mr. Hall said. “You’re expected to win, everybody’s putting their full heart into it when they’re out there, and the feeling of not succeeding and letting people down, it really does weigh on our firefighters and all our staff. This year, it’s nice to feel success. You can see that across everybody’s face.”

Information officer Forrest Tower added that the seasonal nature of the work, and its typically younger work force, can add a layer of complexity to its mental-health impact.

“A year ago today, I was on the White Rock Lake fire and we had a really rough night, with a lot of structural damage,” Mr. Tower said, referencing the Okanagan’s worst wildfire of 2021. “Aug. 15, a lot of those crews were in people’s backyards, watching hundreds of homes burn down. Twenty, 30 days later, they’re sitting in first-year calculus, in classrooms, with PTSD for some people, guaranteed.”

Mr. Moreira, the deputy incident commander, said he has reflected on wildfires being one of few natural disasters that human beings can control.

“Certainly there are years that we’ve talked about because of climate change – last year being the big example – where it’s such an extreme that we do everything we can but nature is still unfortunately beating us,” he said.

“But this year, and this year’s a great example, we have an impact on a natural hazard that would otherwise burn out of control and affect communities to a way greater extent.”

B.C. Wildfire Service ignitions specialist Kevin Parkinson explains how the plastic sphere dispenser, a machine that drops Ping-Pong sized balls of fire from helicopters, can help control the Keremeos Creek wildfire, B.C.’s second-largest wildfire this summer.

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