||July/August 2003 issue||
Battling the dragon
On the attack with Canada's elite boreal firefighters
By Michael Clugston with photography by Todd Korol
"GRAB A HELICOPTER WITH A HELITORCH," says the voice on the phone.
"Head north. Fast!" That's all the instruction Kelly Sawchuk needs.
He hangs up, steps quickly out thedoor, hails a pilot and jogs with him to
a chopper in the yard at the fire base in Weyakwin in central Saskatchewan.
Moments later, the pair is lifting above a sea of spruce and pine.
As a veteran firefighter, Sawchuk knows that some forest fires take
off like hopped-up sprinters, that a lightning strike out of a high-wind
sky after weeks of drought in the boreal forest is like dropping
a match into a streak of gas on pavement. Wind-driven blazes can
leap across lakes and defy any attempt at control. The trick is
to nail them while they're still small.
"We saw the fire as soon as we got above the trees. You couldn't
miss it," says Sawchuk. Sparked by lightning and catapulted
by furious south winds into the parched tree crowns three kilometres
from Weyakwin, the fire is growing in mass and momentum, an instant
inferno barrelling to the north. "It was an amazing fire, going
flat out. It had to be doing 80 kilometres an hour, and we could
hardly catch it. A helicopter can't fly very quickly with a
Slung beneath the chopper on five-metre cables is a 205-litre drum
packed with jellied fuel and linked by hose to a custom-designed
burner nozzle. The helitorch is used to fight fires with fire, to set
backfires that can slow or redirect a speeding forest blaze away
from buildings or timber tracts in its path.
The Dragon fire, as it was dubbed by firefighters for its sudden, furious
character, is rushing at a cluster of 400 cottages on the shore
of Weyakwin Lake. It threatens to leap the only road into the subdivision,
burn out the power lines, and spread into a large forest. People
stream out of their houses, eyes fixed on the ominous pall of smoke.
Sawchuk goes in alone because all the other helicopters are busy
on different blazes. Water bombers may or may not arrive in time
to help him. His approach is deliberate: he scans the forest for
a target, a tactician looking for an opening. He is well trained
in the science of predicting fire behaviour, in the burn patterns
of different tree species, in the telltale colours of foliage at
different moisture levels. Now he needs a natural barrier to work
with. A stream or swamp would be nice. He spots a small piece of
muskeg — it'll have to do. Quick words are exchanged,
and the pilot dips the chopper beneath the smoke, flying directly
ahead of the onrushing fire.
Michael Clugston is a former Canadian Geographic senior
editor now living in Hong Kong. Photographer Todd Korol lives in
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• In Depth: Canada's burning bush