Smoke plume above the Harrop fire, seen from Nelson on July 31. Photo: Brian Port

Smoke plume above the Harrop fire, seen from Nelson on July 31. Photo: Brian Port

Harrop wildfire equipment stolen

The fire has grown to 650 hectares from 200 on the weekend

Hoses and pumps being used by about 20 firefighters at the Harrop Creek fire were stolen Monday night from the firefighting site.

As of press time late Tuesday morning it was unknown how soon they could be replaced.

“With so many fires across the area, pumps and hoses are a hard commodity to come by,” said B.C. Wildfire Services’ Karlie Shaughnessy. The theft has been reported to the RCMP.

The lightning-caused wildfire, discovered on Thursday, has since grown to 650 hectares. The high-altitude fire is about eight kilometres south of Harrop and is not close to any human habitation or structures.

B.C. Wildfire Services’ John Boivin told the Star it has been tough to figure out how to fight it. When the fire was discovered they went in with an initial attack crew and water bombers, but had to withdraw again.

“We quickly realized that the landscape up there is way too dangerous for our crews. If the wind changed or something else had happened, we would not have been able to get them out safely, so we pulled them for safety reasons.

“It is up at high elevation, the winds are wonky up there, and that made it difficult for our air crews to go up there, and for our helicopters to be bucketing that fire.”

That explains the apparent lull in firefighting action on the fire over Friday and Saturday. He said that during that time they decided they needed a plan B, because the fire is “complex and difficult.” So their analysts flew over it and strategized.

“We came up with a plan, which is to build a fire break a little further down where we would have safe access for our crews so they can work the fire safely.”

In the meantime, a heavy lift helicopter started working the fire on Sunday and has continued through this week.

Although Boivin admits that resources for fire fighting are stretched throughout the province, lack of resources was not a factor in the Harrop Creek fire (until Tuesday morning’s theft).

“The whole fire zone (southeastern B.C.) is at an extreme danger level so if something can’t be attacked the first day, or if it is not being an effective strategy on a fire the first day, we may pour resources elsewhere until we can come back to it.”

He said this was especially true considering that there are other fires in the region much closer to buildings and infrastructure. He said crews are moved around according to need.

In the past week, Boivin said, there have been 35 new fires in the southwest region and nine were put out within 24 hours, and six more were extinguished in 48 hours.

One of the local experts consulted by B.C. Wildfire Services is Erik Leslie, the forestry manager for the Harrop Procter Community Forest, in which the fire is burning.

He said he is not concerned for the safety of the community in the short term.

“But I am worried that we have maybe six more weeks of hot dry weather. I am definitely concerned about that.”

When the Star interviewed him, Leslie was in his truck, headed up toward the fire, “making contingency plans for if the fire jumps over the creek and runs up the other side.”

He said about 100 people get their drinking and irrigation water directly from Harrop Creek.

“If a large portion of the watershed burns, it is the same as if you have lots of logging in the watershed, there would be more water in the spring and potentially less in the late summer. So I am not worried about water supply at the moment, this year. But maybe for future years.”

Leslie says he’s getting lots of phone calls and emails from concerned locals.

“People are definitely nervous. It is the talk of the town.”

The Harrop fire is burning just outside the eastern boundary of West Arm Wilderness Park, which extends westward to Nelson and contains the city’s water supply. The park’s 100-year old mature coniferous forest is the kind that modern fire suppression policies have kept from burning for many decades. That means potential fuel has built up to a dangerous level.

“So there is mature forest and no access into the park,” Leslie said, “so if a fire gets going in the park either from Harrop or from a lightning strike, then….”

Leslie said we can expect more of the same intense level of fire activity in the coming years.

“It is not surprising this fire is happening, especially given (past) fire suppression and the changing climate. This is the kind of situation we have to be planning for.”