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Controlled to out of control: Dew Drop Trail wildfire in sensitive grassland

The Dew Drop Trail fire started by an unknown cause and was being held as a controlled burn until Monday, June 26, when a wind event boosted the size.
June 30, 2017 - 2:37 PM

KAMLOOPS – The ground is still smouldering from the Dew Drop Trail wildfire and there are lingering questions about how a controlled burn got out of control and what it means for the future of the protected Lac Du Bois grasslands.

The fire was never a prescribed burn, or a planned controlled burn, rather firefighters were doing a burning off operation after a fire was discovered on June 16. The cause of the initial fire is still under investigation, but a wind event on Monday June 26, is the reason the burning operation became an out of control fire that grew to 156 hectares.

B.C. Wildfire took the burning off approach because of the fragile ecosystem in the grasslands, according B.C. Wildfire fire information officer Max Birkner.

"The reason they used the burning off method was to avoid bringing in heavy equipment and really damaging the ecosystem," Birkner says. "It was a challenging environment to fight fire in and they wanted to take a light hand on the land and the park."

Birkner says the wind event is part of the reason for the out of control blaze, not lack of personnel or resources.

There were 14 firefighters patrolling the controlled burn on the morning of June 26.

"The activity was extremely low. They were relieved by six firefighters in the afternoon, and when the six were there, the wind event happened. It blew up the fire very quickly and then the initial crew was called back," Birkner says.

Gusts reached 70 km/h and caused the fire to grow by seven hectares in a very short amount of time.

"Those are pretty significant winds. The spread of the fire went from essentially nothing to being quite large. Much like fire, weather is hard to predict," Birkner says.

"There are always enough people on site in a burning off operation," Birkner says. "The winds did happen very suddenly, but it was convenient in many ways in terms of resources. They were able to hit it very quickly."

Birkner says the fire is now a rank one smouldering ground fire. Today, June 30, there are 72 firefighters on site, digging up hotspots and pouring water on them.

"The fire has moved through and a lot of the trees were spared, which is nice. On the ground not everything is burned because the fire moved in a spotting way. There are large areas of burned ground and trees and other areas where it didn't touch," Birkner says.

What's the damage to the grassland?

Frank Ritcey with the Naturalist Club hasn't been to the area to check out the damage quite yet, but did say fires that burn hot and quickly can be extremely damaging to grasslands.

"The grasslands have very sensitive and shallow top soils to begin with, and then if you do get a hot fire, the topsoils are very easily destroyed," Ritcey says.

A concern with wildfires in grasslands is the potential for invasive weeds to take over during regrowth.

"It basically burns off all the topsoil layer and leaves no nutrients in the ground for plants to grow," Ritcey says. "The invasive weeds are much better suited to exploit those opportunities. You do get an increase in invasive weeds."

He adds it's still very early to asses the fire, and the best time to judge the damage is down the road.

"The best analysis will happen by next spring. It can look pretty bleak after a fire goes through, but by spring you can see what has survived. It's amazing how resilient how nature is," he says.

Ritcey would not speculate on the cause of the fire but did say that the area is supposed to be a protected grassland with no off road vehicles, but people frequently break the rules.

For more on the Dew Drop Trail fire go here.


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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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