Burnt landscape from a wildfire along the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon // Credit: Chelsea Uggenti

Fighting Fire with Fire

A review of the CBC article, “Fighting forest fires with fire: Pyrotechnics and flaming Ping-Pong balls”.

Recently, we came across Wallin Snowdon’s CBC article entitled “Fighting forest fires with fire: Pyrotechnics and flaming Ping-Pong balls” (June 22, 2020). What piqued our interest was that it discusses interesting techniques of fighting wildfires from a unique and counterintuitive prospective – fighting fire, with fire! This news article is part of a five-part podcast series produced by CBC Edmonton, called World on Fire, each with half hour shows discussing the implications of wildfires and how communities rebound after such events across locations such as Canada, Australia, and California. 

The CBC article and podcast features Kevin Parkinson, a wildfire operations officer based out of Slave Lake, Alberta, who is one of the few trained experts within the province with an intimate knowledge of utilizing prescribed burns for combating large wildfires. 

As a highlight on the podcast series, this CBC article touches on a lesser-known side of wildfires, that is, that wildfires are not necessarily inherently bad. In fact, they can even be beneficial. Wildfires themselves are natural and the complete prevention of them is not always the “best solution”, even from a human-centric point of view. Massive, destructive wildfires can be devastating, as we’ve all seen in the media in recent years, with fires including the 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Alberta or the 2020 El Dorado fire in California. These large, out-of-control massive fires differ significantly from the prescribed burns described by Snowdon’s article.

Wildfires themselves are natural and the complete prevention of them is not always the “best solution”…

Prescribed burns, also commonly known as controlled burns, are fires set intentionally by experts for land or fire management. As mentioned by the article, these types of burns are done across Alberta each year, however, it is important to note that they are used across Canada and other parts of the world for the benefits they provide. Interestingly, they can be used for fire management, reducing the risks associated with subsequent fires on the landscape. They can also aid in greenhouse gas abatement, promoting regeneration and regrowth of forested areas, and the restoration or maintenance of habitats.

Re-growth on the forest floor after the 2017 Horse Prairie Fire in southern Oregon // Credit: Chelsea Uggenti

You may ask yourself: “How does starting fires lead to less fires?” Although it may seem counter-intuitive, prescribed burn fires can help reduce the risk of later, and often more severe and thus dangerous, fires. Over time, combustible materials such as dried leaves and branches can build up on the forest floor. This accumulation can make the forest more susceptible to a severe fire. Attempting to suppress and prevent fires indefinitely actually often helps enable excess combustible material to accumulate, thus increasing the risk of a severe fire later. Prescribed burns are used to clear this material away before the risk becomes too great. 

Cleaning up the forest floor litter after a prescribed burn in 2018 near Bend, Oregon // Credit: Chelsea Uggenti

Cleaning up the forest floor litter after a prescribed burn in 2017 in the Ochoco National Forest // Credit: Chelsea Uggenti

From an ecological point of view, fires can be important to maintaining certain habitats, and some ecological communities are even regarded as “fire dependent”. Without relatively frequent fires, these areas will not support the same species they otherwise would. Prolonged fire suppression efforts by humans have altered these landscapes, but we are realizing that fires can be important. Through prescribed burns, some of these ecosystems have been at least partially restored.

A few ways that prescribed burns can begin were also highlighted in the CBC article. One such method included dropping fireballs (ping-pong like balls filled with glycol that chemically react) from helicopters to ignite slow burning forest fires. However, sometimes a more intense fire is warranted during a prescribed burn. For these more intense fires, another aerial technique that is employed is called a heli-torch, a helicopter with a 45-gallon drum with gel that is ignited as it is dumped over the forest. Other tamer methods include using a drip torch – a canister that pours flaming fuel onto the ground, done manually while walking in the forest – which are a bit less intense but just as important for wildfire suppression. These are just a few of the hazard reduction technologies and techniques Parkinson uses to protect from larger wildfires, however, there is a lot more strategy involved than simply playing with pyrotechnics. As the article highlights, smaller strategic fires can be set to redirect wildfires in safer directions towards natural fire breaks and often, these fires are carefully planned and executed in detail.

A scorched tree after a wildfire in Umpqua National Forest, Oregon // Credit: Chelsea Uggenti

These burns must be done responsibly, with careful consideration and planning of the present environment. Short and long-term weather conditions, the combustible material present, the types of ecosystems, and nearby infrastructure are all factored in when agencies create a “burn plan”. Parkinson mentioned the carefully planned and executed prescribed burn in Rocky Mountain House that took 10 years to occur while they waited for the right conditions. Although some people believe these burns are bad since they can create or increase smoke plumes in populated areas which can lead to uncomfortable breathing conditions or increased smoke-related illnesses, it is important to realize that the smoke generated by these burns is usually less intrusive and dangerous than the smoke generated by a raging wildfire.

What does this mean to us, exactly? We feel that articles like this give us hope. Although wildfires can be very dangerous and scary, there are some amazing preventative measures, like prescribed burns, in place that help to reduce their risks. It is inspiring to read about Kevin Parkinson’s flaming ping-pong balls technique and the other methods employed by fire fighters and crews. Moving forward, we hope to see better communication (I mean, we’re living in the digital age, right?!) between fire management agencies, fire fighters, and the public that continues to share and strengthen the knowledge that prescribed burns are necessary and effective. We hear the common “short-term pains for long-term gains” phrase ringing in our minds.

This article is part of our March 2021 Western Student Editorial Series – a series that showcases the works of students in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability program. Read more articles from this series here!

Marnie is a MSc candidate in Biology with a Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability. Her research involves growing many plants and focuses on the uptake of cadmium and selenium by plants, and how it is affected by sulphate. When she is not growing plants for school, she’s probably growing other plants or looking at trees.

Kevin is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography and Environment in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Western Ontario. He completed his MSc in Geography and BSc in Environmental Geoscience at the University of Toronto. Kevin loves to travel and go on adventures all throughout the year. He loves mountain biking and canoeing in the summer and loves to ski and snowshoe in the winter.

Chelsea is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Statistics with a Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Western Ontario. She completed her MSc in Statistics at the University of Western Ontario and BA in Mathematics from Wilfrid Laurier University. Outside of academics, she enjoys camping, theatre, and knitting. You can also find her baking bread, granola bars, and other yummy treats!