Why was Fort St. John mega-sprinkler not used on wildfires?

It was a hot summer. Some of that heat was the roar of forest fires. Some of that heat was the roar of anger over how the fires were fought.

The firefighters themselves were celebrated then as heroes and their smoky, sooty reputations are still just as sterling, but management practices raised ire that has not subsided in many communities where homes were lost and stress was felt at once-in-a-lifetime levels.

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The hottest spot for that community backlash was the Southside - a community south of Francois Lake, north of Ootsa Lake and west of Fraser Lake. Other than resource roads through the bush, the only way in or out is across the Francois Lake ferry, and that became a choke point for people trying to help, trying to flee, trying to protect, and trying to understand why authorities seemed to be in their way at every turn.

The anger was already feverish when the fires got out of control in the first place, it was fanned when police got used by levels of government to try scaring and bullying people out of the threatened communities, and it boiled over into open protest when a multi-million-dollar industrial sprinkler system sat unused for days as the fires burned ever larger and then the word got heard that the system was being sent home by the BC Wildfire service without a single squirt being spit.

A community rally of more than 100 people blocked the path of the trucks owned by Safeguard, an industrial safety company based in Fort St. John. They were the private owner-operators of the super-powered sprinklers. They were hired, as in previous years, by BC Wildfire to come set up a wall of water up to 10 kilometres long to protect structures and halt the advance of the flames.

The protesters did not block the tractor-trailers from leaving, out of respect for the next community that may need them, but they let their rage erupt with words like "abandoned" and "betrayed" spewed at the authorities.

The protesters were unsure to whom their anger should be directed. There was an estimated $20-million worth of firefighting equipment going unused. Was that due to orders from the BC Wildfire Service, or was it due to double-talk on the part of Safeguard owner Jeff Kelly.

Kim Janowsky was the incident commander for the Southside fires the day the trucks were sent home dry. He said they wanted to use the equipment on the Southside but he was told it couldn't handle the landscape conditions over there.

The one place they tried to factor it in was to be a water shield for a prescribed burn to counterattack the Verdun Fire threatening the most populace communities in the vicinity of the Takaysie Lake Resort.

"It would then give us an upper hand to be able to safeguard the fire from heading towards the north and east in the Grassy Plains-Danskin areas. It would be a really helpful tool to put water on the area in preparation for our (protective back-burning) ignition operations," Janowsky said.

"We deferred to him (Kelly) as the expert with his system. We don't know his system. We've used it a little bit in the past, but we don't know his system; he knows it very well. We asked him to go along on a field reconnaissance and look at the site, an area where we felt we could use his equipment. Over a period of three and a half to four hours, it was determined that he wouldn't be able to put his equipment into operation, and that determination was made by him, not by us."

Why? The system is a series of pumps that suck large amounts of water into a sequence of hoses that are fitted with high-power, high-volume sprinklers that super-soak their immediate area. The Southside is the heart of the Lakes District - a moniker derived from the staggering abundance of lakes in that small area.

"He had a lot of restrictions or a lot of inability for his equipment to do things in the bush that we needed it to be able to do," said Janowsky. "The setup was quite an arduous task. Looking at it, we gave him a paved road that was on one perimeter of the fire. We've given him a water source that was in proximity to that paved road. We thought it was an opportunity for him to show us what his equipment could do, but because of the amount of water that he needed, he determined that the water source we had identified was not going to be adequate for his equipment."

That body of water was, Janowsky estimated, two to three hectares in size and deep enough that the firefighting helicopters were able to bucket water from it for dumping on the flames.

"When he saw the amount of water available and the amount of rise he would have to draw from to bring the water up to his system, he just said it wasn't going to be workable."

Janowsky said Kelly was along in person for the exploration trip, and it was Kelly who detailed the system's inabilities.

"His trucks don't go on machined guards (land cleared by heavy equipment), they have a difficult time on any gravel or forest service roads, so he is already limited in what he can and can't do. He's limited by the amount of rise, as to how far he can pump uphill, based on his pumping capabilities. So honestly it was him telling us that where we had wanted him to set up, that he wouldn't be able to do the work."

Kelly rebutted that version of events.

"That is absolutely false. I never said that (there was no way to deploy at the Babine complex). It's lakes country. Of course we can find all kinds of water sources. Of course we can pump uphill. We had 23 12-inch pumps, some of them as much as 630 horsepower. We can move a lot of water uphill. There was a lot of potential there."

The one and only issue with the spots BC Wildfire took him to see, he said, was the amount of water at the sites. He needs a lake. The fires in that area were amidst one of the greatest concentration of lakes in the entire province.

"When we were deployed to the Babine Lake complex fires, we were given two small ponds to assess, with a guide from BC Wildfire," Kelly said. "We can't pump out of ponds. These are 12-inch pumps with 12-inch lines that are feeding 120 water cannons that pump as much as 1,250 gallons each, so we need some water to make this happen. We charge up our lines and then wait until they are needed, so it's not as much as you might think, but we definitely need more than a pond that's three feet high and 50 to 70 feet wide."

Were there any other impediments to using the system: Heights of land? Mountainous terrain?

"With vertical elevation we just keep adding pumps. It's a formula called Total Dynamic Head. As we go up a certain distance, we add another pump. It's not uncommon to plumb as many as 20 of these pumps together to go over small mountains. So, moving water uphill is no issue. The pumps can very easily be deployed with either a pickup or a skid-steer loader, backed into a water source. We don't need flat ground."

So the big question among residents, then, is why weren't you shown more sites?

"In a perfect world it would have been nice to be left alone to do our own evaluation and make our recommendation according to BC Wildfire where the most hazard exists, because it is lakes country, and we probably would have come up with 100 different deployment options for them. And then that could be calculated into the weather forecast as well as the current fire activity. But we weren't given that opportunity. We were given a very short guided tour by a person who was very busy fighting the fire right on the fire's edge and couldn't really focus a day or two in advance of what it takes to truck everything in and set it up. Once we told the incident commander, Pete Lang, that this deployment (the suggested ponds) was not going to work because of the lack of water, he very quickly packed everything up and headed home rather than allowing us to do assessments."

Fraser Lake was concurrently under immanent fire threat. The town itself, two First Nations communities, and a number of rural neighbourhoods were all under threat, with that ample lake as a backdrop to it all - enough water to use the system without a second thought. Instead of the Southside, then, were you approached about setting up to protect any of those homes near Fraser Lake?

"For 2017, we mapped out dozens of deployments and we eventually ended up being allowed to deploy on Elephant Hill (one of the most critical fires in B.C. history)," said Kelly, looking back at the year before. "We have been constantly sending BC Wildfire potential deployment maps throughout this season. It's hard not to find an application for our systems, because not only do we deploy this water curtain, which can be broken into seven different smaller units that are capable of one- to one-and-a-half-kilometre deployments, times seven, but the second thing we can do is pump water to firefighters. We could have filled tanks for them as well, to use water in different areas. There were many different opportunities, but we weren't asked."

Were you not asked due to cost?

"Our system is by far the least expensive way of delivering water currently available for BC Wildfire," he said, adding that the greatest expense had already been paid by the B.C. taxpayer, which was assembling the components from their various locations in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan and shipping it all to the fire site - 54 people and 29 rigs. Once they were in the Central Interior, he said, setting up and turning on the water was cost-negligible.

The provincial government already made efforts to say the winter months would be a period of deep reflection on how forest fire fighting would be done in the future. Premier John Horgan called the recent years' pattern of more, faster, bigger, hotter fires to be signs of a "new normal" in the B.C. environment and in need of a new approach.

Part of the off-season assessments might be how to better use equipment and interact with communities when the heat is on. 

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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