Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Dante’s Valley

Pemberton confronts a new natural enemy

"I love the smell of Jet B in the morning."

It's a familiar refrain at fire bases across the province. Jet B is the fuel that powers the water bombers currently dousing fires in forests throughout British Columbia. Almost 2,000 firefighters across the province smell it every morning as they wage a headlong battle in what's been called the worst summer for forest fires in B.C.'s history.

None can be blamed for drawing analogies with the Vietnam War. Helicopter rotors pierce the quaint quiet of mountains and valleys. Like choppers storming a defenseless beach in "Apocalypse Now," air tankers aggressively drop red fire retardant on burning forests and the singed slopes that result. They might as well be blasting "Ride of the Valkyries" out their cockpits.

It's a scene unfamiliar to Pemberton, but it's likely to become that way as the lush farming valley confronts a new natural enemy. It already had floods to contend with and now it has fires in the summer.

Copper Mountain

August 7/09. I'm riding into the Spud Valley on a Greyhound. My bike's in cargo as I prepare to ride up the Pemberton Meadows to a site where forest fires burn on each side of the valley.

The bus lands at 11:30 a.m. and I retrieve my bike - a Kona Fire Mountain my parents got me as a graduation present last summer. Still runs pretty good except for a brake pad that brushes against the front disk. I have to hope it holds out for a long ride.

Fires are burning about 20 clicks up the Meadows on Copper Mountain and the Camel's Back. Sandwiched between them on the valley floor is some of the most productive agricultural land in the province, its caretakers just sitting there and waiting to see if they'll get evacuated. They're making the best of a bad situation.

Even 20 clicks out, you can feel the fires in the town centre. To the south a smoky haze hangs over majestic Mount Currie. You can feel the heat and the fumes in your nostrils. Asthmatics need not apply.

I'm here to meet Mike McCulley, a Fire Information Officer with the Coastal Fire Centre of the B.C. Ministry of Forests' Wildfire Management Branch. I've asked to see the fires up a little closer than my desk in Function Junction will afford me. Ideally I want to see fire personnel tackling a wall of flames as it grows and engulfs us in a ring of cinders. But I'm not holding my breath.

I've never seen the valley north of the community centre so I figure I'll try and get out there on the bike. It's a pleasant ride and the Meadows sprawl with lovely, cultivated valley, its roots pregnant with agricultural potential.

The valley is quioet, its citizens aware of the threat up the road but trying to carry on their lives as normal. I reach the Miller Creek Bridge before I decide to call Mike. He'll be about 45 minutes.

A motocross bike races past me, its rider perhaps disappointed that he won't be able to compete at the Pemberton speedway this weekend. A race event originally scheduled for Saturday night has been cancelled over fears that racing bikes and cars could spark more fires in the interface.

Some time later a young woman on a motorbike pulls up to the bridge, walks down a path next to it and sprawls out on a small island in the stream beneath it. Life certainly goes on.

Finally my Virgil arrives to take me through the inferno that rages above the valley. Mike McCulley's chariot is a Ford Escape hybrid and he's brought me standard issue red fatigues for when we reach the fire zone.

Some distance up the road we encounter our first checkpoint - a single minivan with a "Stop" sign, its watcher relaxing in the back on a fold-out chair, Dora the Explorer brand. She's here to ensure that only locals can get through and filter out nosy onlookers who want to leer at the fires out the backs of their pickups with six packs of beer at their sides.

She's the only one administering this checkpoint. What if someone blows past her? Is it her job to chase them?

"Nope," she says, and then waves us on through.

About 10 clicks up from the bridge we see the fires burning. To the west, out the driver's side window we see the Camel's Back fire. It's patchy, too bright out to see any flames but a persistent cloud of smoke rises out of the mountain. It's clear where the haze is coming from.

If this is Vietnam, Charlie's the fire - today a 440-hectare blaze that'll nearly double within the week. A persistent patch of smoke burns just above the valley floor and I wonder if it'll come any closer.

McCulley explains that fire crews have built a "cat guard" between the valley and the mountain's slope - literally a boundary cut with a caterpillar.

"One of the biggest risks facing firefighters is falling logs," he says. "At night the trees burn, making them damaged and fragile, so much that you have flaming logs rolling down this slope and igniting more fire."

To guard against hazards caused by falling logs, the Ministry of Forests has dispatched a local team of "heat-seekers" to keep an eye on the fire at night.

"They'll patrol that cat guard at night and their job is to put out fires that roll off the hill slope," McCulley says. "This particular fire is a prime example of where that comes into play... Any time you're burning off vegetation it creates instability on the floor below."

Further along the Meadows we see the Copper Mountain fire to our right. It towers over the valley, burning right up to its peak. The fire itself is less visible than the blaze on the Camel's Back but it simmers deep beneath the trees. The most recent estimate on the fire is 750 hectares but it, too, will grow to around 800 within the week.

We turn off the Meadows on to the Lillooet Forest Service Road and stop at a second checkpoint at the base of the mountain. It's manned by a single RCMP officer.

The mountain towers above the farm properties of the Van Loon family, who have pulled food out of the ground here for about a half-century. A llama sits idly in the field north of the road. Sitting completely still, its head turned towards the north, it keeps a watchful eye on danger coming from higher up.

McCulley gives me the standard-issue cover-alls for the journey into the fire zone. We make small talk with the Mountie as Mike tries to reach an Incident Commander (IC) and set up an appointment with the local media. He keeps at the IC as we head into the shadow of the worst forest fire Pemberton has seen in generations.

We drive along the FSR, the Escape bumping up and down along the unpaved road. Chainsaws wrestle with stubborn stumps in the forest around us as tree fallers clear areas for fire crews to come in and battle the blaze on the ground. We have to pause in the road to ensure nothing falls on top of us.

It's a little startling to watch a forest come down on all sides as you drive into it. The sound of a chainsaw cutting a swath through an interface answers with full certainty the question of whether you hear a tree when it falls in the forest.

The air is dry and hot, just as it's been for weeks, and the combination makes for an extreme fire danger in the Pemberton area. McCulley tells me that whenever temperature exceeds the humidity level, there's an "extreme" risk for increased fire activity.

On a radio filled with static we get word that Rank 4-5 fire behaviour is possible for the day - just a step below the highest ranking a fire can attain. We're to expect a repeat of the previous day when the fire grew overnight.

Staging Area

Finally we arrive at a clearing where the 'Nam analogies seem most appropriate. We stop the car below the LZ - or in this case the staging area, which might be more accurately called the SA. It's here that choppers dropping buckets of water take their leave, and a helicopter lands just as we arrive, landing on an uneven surface that sends dirt and dust flying every which way as it touches the ground.

It's here that I'm introduced to Mike Simpson, a crew supervisor who's been fighting fires for almost two decades. Originally from McBride, a community nestled between the Rockies and the Cariboo Mountains, Simpson is head of the Titans, a unit of 20 personnel that's tackling the blaze at every level, from the base to the alpine.

The crew gets its name from the generation of Greek deities that predates the gods - and that were later defeated when Zeus made the all-powerful Kronos vomit up the rest of his children. The Titans here have chosen the name because they're better than the gods. They're perfectly aware the Titans were later defeated, but they hope they'll have more success in swallowing up this particular fire.

"We've got guys coming right off the river and I've got a crew, they're about 900 metres up the hill, vertical, so they're at 900 metres elevation," Simpson says.

The Titans have just come back to this fire after battling a blaze on Blackcomb a week earlier. With that fire sufficiently contained, they now find themselves tackling a stubborn blaze that will continue to burn for another two weeks at least.

Asked what's the worst fire he's ever fought, Simpson cites a 2001 fire in Chisholm, Alberta - an inferno that burned about 116,000 hectares. That's three times the size of the City of Edmonton, according to some sources. 10 homes were believed incinerated in that blaze while the forest industry lost about 4.5 million hectares of growing stock.

Asked how this summer's fires compare to his pervious experience, Simpson says it's too early to tell - there's still plenty of summer left and with it the possibility of more dry weather.

"It's early yet, too early to tell how this one goes," he said. "We'll see what the next rainstorm brings."

How, then, to fight this stubborn fire without rain? Simpson says crews are working from the top down, some of them digging a hand-guard with polaskis (special axes) in places where forest fuels could allow fires to persist. Others are using the axes to literally dig into the ground and pull the fire to the surface so that other personnel can cool it off with water from nearby creeks.

They do this all over the mountain, while in other locations a cat-guard's been built, just like the one on the Camel's Back. It digs deep trenches and clears away fuels such as leaves and kindling on the ground so the fire can't burn on through.

McCulley starts to pull me away, worried about being on time for a meeting at the Pemberton firebase. Simpson, the Kronos of the Titans, goes back to his crew and we're on the road again.

Howe Sound Outdoor School

Next we drive back towards the Meadows, this time stopping at a heritage village long ago established by the Howe Sound School District. It's here that the old Pemberton schoolhouse has come to rest. It's a one-classroom building and important piece of the community's history that now stands in the shade of a growing fire.

At another time in history this was the site of the Coast Mountain Outdoor School and Farm, a place where every Grade 6 student in the district would come and live in the heart of nature, learning agriculture and early Canadian history from first-hand experience.

Students would spend four days at a time here, living in cabins and tending to a farm with cows, pigs, goats and bees.

Today the school's only resident is Thomas Postrach, a native of Germany's Black Forest area who lives there with his wife and two sons. Outside his life as the custodian at Pemberton's Signal Hill Elementary School, he lives in a cabin at the village and serves as a kind of de facto caretaker at the school, which no longer operates due to financial pressures on the district.

Postrach's been living at the school since 1998 and says he likes it there because of its proximity to nature. Every once in a while the school gets a hiking group as guests but overall it's sat empty since about the year 2000.

"I'm renting and not really hired there as a watchperson," he says. "I think the school maybe likes me to be out there on the place so I get a fairly good rate from the school."

Since the fire started Postrach and his family began camping outside their cabin, it being too hot to sleep inside. They were enjoying a great light show one night when an RCMP officer came in the middle of the night to inform them they may soon be evacuated.

The order to get out came on the afternoon of Friday, July 31. Postrach and his family then moved to a local hotel that didn't even have bugscreens on its windows. He hated it so much that they took up temporary residence in the comfort of the Nairn Falls campground.

With Postrach away from the school, all that protects its structures from encroaching flames are sprinklers - literally the kinds that kids frolic among to ward off the summer heat. The main school building has four protecting it and all the cabins are being sprayed on all sides. McCulley says they're perfectly adept at warding off a fire.

It's here that we meet Jack Welch, one of many firefighters who've journeyed across the country from Ontario in B.C.'s time of need. He's leading a crew of 20 on the mountain.

Ontario and B.C. firefighters have a kind of "quid pro quo" agreement that sees them exchange personnel as needed. Back in 2006 B.C. crews helped attend to fires in Ontario that spread over a collective area of 20,562 hectares. Bone-dry conditions in northwestern Ontario forced the evacuation of about 700 people as 300 fires burned in the region.

Welch, a 29-year firefighter from Thunder Bay, says Copper Mountain isn't the worst fire he's ever seen but it's certainly one of the toughest to fight.

"It's the terrain, we're not used to that in Ontario," he says. "I couldn't put crews on in a lot of places because it was dangerous, just because of the terrain. You're forced to get innovative and come up with different ways of doing things."

James Peters, a firefighter from D'Arcy and member of the N'Quatqua First Nation, joins Welch in the village. He leads a crew out of his home community that's been split between duties at the Pemberton Fire Base and on the mountain.

Fire crews often work in teams of two - one digs the fire out of the ground with a polaski, the other hoses it down with water from a nearby creek. Wherever that can't be done, helicopters will lift a bladder bag of 2,500 gallons up to higher elevations so that fire crews can do the same up there.

One's a digger, the other's a hoser - and they do this for 12 to 14 hours a day. I watch two of these guys work a fire in the ground behind the heritage village. Nestled in amongst charred trees, smoke springs out of the ground like a small geyser as two men tend to it. One digs in several locations, the other tries to hose it down, but still it keeps coming back as the fire travels underground through roots and loamy wood debris.

Peters has lived in this terrain most of his life but says he's never seen fires like this here before. The Copper fire has gone right to the top of the mountain and crews are trying to keep it from slipping down the other side.

"There's crews up on top right now trying to stop it and bucketing it right now," he says. "You get in an area, you could put in 20 guys but you still need a bucketing machine to help you just because of the terrain."

Asked whether Pemberton could see fires like this again, Peters says it's perfectly likely.

"Oh yeah, just because of climate change too," he says. "I think this is the worst I've ever seen it."

Farming irrigation impacted

While the fire has thus far spared all buildings, it hasn't been kind to the van Loon family, which lives directly beneath it. Early in the blaze the fire claimed an irrigation system that the van Loons use to irrigate their farms with water from Thompson Creek, which is just a little ways up the mountain.

Marty van Loon runs Pemberton Valley Farms on the north side of the forest service road. He raises seed potatoes and beef cattle and says his family has endured "sleepless nights" as the fire has raged.

Like a volcano, van Loon said the fires on Copper and the Camel's Back started with puffs of smoke atop both mountains and then it just grew over a matter of days.

"Never did I think it would come on to the valley floor," he says.

Sure enough, the fire reached the floor, flaring up just behind the outdoor school until fire crews put it out. The school was saved in time but the fire's done some fatal damage to van Loon's irrigation system.

Before the fire it was an eight-inch pipe weighing 180 pounds per square inch, using the force of gravity to water his farm and keep the crops growing.

"It's buried in the ground on the farm, then we cross the river on a cable with a pipe," van Loon says. "It goes up the mountain to a point of 325 feet above the valley floor and that gives the pressure. The higher up you go the more pressure you get."

The system has been in place since 1984. It's not completely destroyed but trees have fallen on the line in places and bent it in others. In other places the line was hooked up to stumps with cables but those stumps have since burned up.

Van Loon gathered a crew of family members to try and push the fire back from the line at one point but an RCMP officer stopped them, threatening to either fine them or put them in jail if they tried it again.

"You want to try to protect what's important to you and that's all we were doing," he says. "It was seven of us and other farmers, some great neighbours, my two boys were up there as well and we had a radio with us."

With the irrigation system down, van Loon finds himself waiting on the rain. His potatoes have since gotten a bit of that but they could always use more.

"It's quite amazing what the fire can do," he says. "We're not even allowed to go in there and assess the whole thing."

Attempts were made to contact the Pemberton RCMP and the St'latl'imx Tribal Police about the incident with the irrigation system but none returned calls for comment. Inquiries to spokespeople with the Ministry of Forests were directed to the aforementioned bodies.

A New Enemy

The advent of summer forest fires means Pemberton is in a kind of seasonal "catch-22" - in the colder months it faces floods, in the summer it's fires. The loss of vegetation due to fires can make flooding worse.

The fires this summer haven't done nearly the damage that floods have to Pemberton in the past but it's nevertheless been a wakeup call for residents of some of British Columbia's most precious farming terrain.

Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy says the bone dry summer could very well be the "future of the weather" in this part of the world.

"I think we need to prepare for this kind of climate change," he says. "As there's increased numbers of people living in and around interface locations we'll see that risk and I think we see that risk up and down the corridor. We live in a mountainous, wooded environment and we all like trees around where we live. It's going to be a hazard."

The Village of Pemberton has already taken steps to protect its residents against forest fires in the past. The village's "fuels mitigation strategy" has seen fire crews create "fuel breaks" along the mountain to the village's northwest, a south-facing slope with mountain pine beetle kill that has significant potential to run a fire into town.

But those aren't the only areas facing some serious risk should lightning ignite a fire. Other areas include the Xito'lacw townsite in Mount Currie, which has likewise seen beetle kill around its borders. Ivey Lake and Owl Ridge also face some risk, given their locations so close to forests.

"These are where it appears to me there's a higher level of risk with regard to destruction of assets or of value," Sturdy says.

How, then, does the village expect to deal with fires of a magnitude as yet unseen near its boundaries? The fires have hurt marketing opportunities for local farmers, particularly the Slow Food Cycle which was cancelled out of concerns about emergency access to the Pemberton Meadows. And, of course, there's the damage to the van Loons' irrigation system.

Clearly the fires are hurting the region's biggest economic driver. Sturdy says fire protection is the purview of the Ministry of Forests and Range but the Village is certain to make it a priority in future.

"Certainly the Village of Pemberton has been working for a number of years on creating fire breaks and is concerned about interface fires," he says. "I think we'll certainly be advocating in future for looking at emergency planning and working out how municipalities and the regional district can work together to manage any natural emergency event."


1530 rolls around and Mike McCulley has to head to his meeting. We pull over on the side of the road in the Meadows so I can get the coveralls off. As we head back towards the Pemberton fire base the wind starts to pick up and McCulley notes it with some dread in his voice. Every gust is more fuel for persistent fires, causing flare-ups while spreading sparks.

When he drops me off I make the foolish decision to bike back to Whistler - a 35 kilometre journey up hill made worse by the blowback I'm getting from the changing wind. For a man as yet too inexperienced to conquer the Comfortably Numb trail, this is a rigorous ride.

I swear to myself about the wind but I take some solace in knowing that it doesn't threaten me where I live. For firefighters it's more work. And for the Pembertonians living in the shadow of the fires, it means another day confronting their new natural enemy.