Jimmie Hodgson, Mosaic forest operations manager, shows remains of a campfire believed to have caused the recent fire at Taylor Arm. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Alberni Valley wildfires have carelessness in common

Mosaic Forest Management urging the public to be more cautious

MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Mosaic Forest Management is on its toes and urging the public to be more cautious after two record-setting wildfire seasons and the prospect of a third this summer.

Mosaic — which oversees the operations of Island Timberlands and TimberWest after the two affiliated last year — counted 66 wildfires on its land base in 2018, including three in the Alberni Valley caused by human activities. In all, 80 percent were human-caused wildfires, twice the average for B.C.

“We’ve definitely ramped up our response people,” said Jimmie Hodgson, senior manager of forest operations. “The ball really started rolling last year to better equip ourselves. We had a hard look at everything we had and started to upgrade.”

They hired consultant Phil Taudin-Chabot, former manager of B.C. Wildfire’s Coastal Fire Centre, to provide advice.

“We’ve also upped our game in terms of training,” Hodgson added.

Mosaic is better equipped to take on wildfires on their own this year without relying so much on B.C. Wildfire’s Coastal Fire Centre. When the provincial wildfire situation gets intense, provincial resources can be heavily taxed.

“We don’t want to solely rely on them. We want to be prepared to fight our fires if we have to,” Hodgson said.

A common denominator of abandoned campfires was all too obvious on a tour with Mosaic of recent wildfire sites. Last summer’s most challenging blaze, on Arbutus Ridge, was also traced back to a campfire by Mosaic’s cause and investigation team. A security video camera across the harbour captured images of the suspected culprits.

READ: Fire crews mop up Arbutus Ridge fire in Port Alberni

“It’s a hot spot for locals,” Hodgson said while noting that the fire set back their plantation plan by five years.

Another campfire is believed to have caused a two-hectare blaze near Taylor Arm Provincial Park west of Sproat Lake in early June. Hodgson pointed to a small fire ring at the foot of a charred hillside, roasting sticks still lying on the ground. This is the same area as a fire that flared briefly above the highway last July. On a ridge of Mt. Klitsa, hundreds of metres above, standing dead trees are still visible from the 1967 Taylor River fire, one of the worst in memory.

READ: Taylor Flats wildfire in the Alberni Valley under control

“It comes down to an education piece,” Hodgson said. “Make sure it’s 110 percent out. If it’s cold to the touch, it should be OK.”

Mosaic’s preparedness is motivated not only by its 600,000-hectare land base but by a heightened sense of risk. An odd phenomenon on northern Vancouver Island last season was troubling, possibly due to conditions exacerbated by climate change.

“Twenty-plus fires started overnight because of a lightning storm,” Hodgson noted.

Their aim is to catch lightning-caused blazes within the first 12 to 24 hours to improve chances of success. In a city surrounded by forest, much of it belonging to Mosaic, there also lies the potential for interface fires possibly endangering lives and property. The company is partnering with the Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department and local governments in an ongoing Fire Smart project to reduce forest fuels.

WATCH: Sproat Lake Fire Department demonstrates sprinkler safety

“We’re not only looking at protecting our asset,” Hodgson said. “That asset surrounds the community. We’re protecting the community and surrounding communities.”

Mosaic managers raised the wildfire concern when they appeared before city council last week on Monday, June 24. The Arbutus blaze, so close to the city that it could be seen by all, naturally came up.

“That was a relatively larger and technically challenging fire,” said Domenico Iannidinardo, Mosaic’s chief forester. It was also one where Mosaic played a big role with contractors on site from the start, he added.

The company operates 37 weather data stations on its land base, representing a vast network when combined with a dozen other provincial government stations.

“Often the public is not aware of what’s going on out there as well as we are,” Iannidinardo said a few days after the Island welcomed scattered showers.

“It doesn’t really mean that we are out of the woods because there are pockets that didn’t get any rain at all,” the forester said.

Hodgson said conditions are at a critical stage due to a prolonged drought.

“I think the next couple of weeks of rain is really going to tell that story,” he said. “So far, if you look at annual precipitation, I think we’re sitting at 66 percent of normal.”

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The 2018 Arbutus Ridge fire was caused by a different campfire nearby, but this bonfire ring overlooking the city speaks for itself. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Aftermath of the 1967 Taylor fire. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

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