Before firefighting crews are done extinguishing a burning forest, investigators from the B.C. Wildfire Service are already examining the smoking remains behind them, sifting through the ash for clues as to how the fire started.
“We prefer to be deployed as soon as possible,” said Ian Douglas, who leads some 50 investigators across B.C. as the wildfire enforcement and prevention officer. The service has added 19 trainees to that number this year, who will be mentored on the job over the next two years.
“Most of the time, the fire is still burning when we’re there,” said Douglas, a veteran of 35 years in the woods. “Crews are working over (at the fire) and we’re working quietly in the black area.”
The new recruits come after B.C. had a record year in 2015, with more than 380,000 hectares of B.C. forest lost to fire, and all indications pointing to an early and busy 2016 fire season.
“It’s going to be busy,” the Kamloops-based Douglas said. “We’ve already been busy up to this point in the north; when things heat up in the south, there will be a barrage of fires.”
Since the 2016 fiscal year started at the beginning of April, the B.C. Wildfire Service has logged 213 fires. Of those, 174 were believed to be human-caused, four by lightning and 35 are still under investigation.
The Siphon Creek fire northeast of Fort St. John has crossed the border into Alberta, with more than 17,000 hectares ablaze as of the end of last week, and with 77 B.C. firefighters and nine helicopters carrying their battle across the border, as Alberta crews had their hands full with the disastrous Fort McMurray fire.
The investigation into the Siphon Creek fire has already been turned over to the forest ministry’s enforcement arm.
“It continues to be a frustration,” B.C. Forest Minister Steve Thomson told reporters in a briefing. “To see the numbers and to see the fact that the majority of these have been human-caused remains a sense of frustration and that is why we significantly increased fines.”
As of April, anyone caught contravening specified open burning and campfire regulations could face fines more than three times higher than last year’s penalties. For example, the fine for not complying with a fire restriction under the Wildfire Act has tripled from $345 to $1,150. Failing to properly extinguish a burning substance, such as a cigarette, will now cost an offender $575.
Douglas said his team’s work to determine a cause for each fire can help police and other enforcement agencies, and also assist in future fire prevention work.
Investigators start with telephoned reports of a fire, he said. “We put them in a chronological range of what people are observing, when and where they’re observing it from.”
They get early reports from firefighters at the scene, as well as aerial photos. Physical clues in a fire’s wake help to narrow their search further.
“If we show up at a thousand-hectare fire, we’re not going to search a thousand hectares, we’re going to narrow it down,” Douglas said. “The general area of origin could be as larges as a couple of hectares.”
On the ground, burnt trees, rocks and even beer cans point them in the direction of the fire’s starting point.
“Anything that the fire passes by or near, that leaves indicators or marks that help us to determine the direction of fire travel,” he said. “We look at a rock, say, and if a fire passes over it, it’s going to be hotter on one side than the other. it could be sooting left behind from the fire, so it’s really black on one side . . . it could be stain by the oils that are released by some of the fuel, so it has a shiny side.. or ash accumulation on one side and not the other.
“It takes some interpretation expertise, skill and experience to start seeing all of it. But there are literally thousands of clues out there.”
Douglas started out fighting forest fighters at 19, more than 35 years ago, and moved to investigating them 15 years ago.
“Typically the operations side of the business, the firefighting side, is more exciting,” he said.
“It takes your breath away when you see a full-on forest fire for the first time. . . . I was very energized, as a young guy fighting fires. There’s lots of things happening around you, there’s aircraft, machinery, lots of radio chatter, a very exciting environment to work in.”
He said the investigation side involves more detective work, diagramming a fire’s path, gathering physical evidence. Campfires, smoking, debris burning, heavy equipment and other causes all leave evidence behind.