'It was hard to see': N.B. rangers helped in the aftermath of B.C. fire

·3 min read

Late afternoon is the most dangerous time of day to battle raging forest fires. Often called the "witching hour" by fire crews, the wind can shift suddenly, threatening to undo the backbreaking work to halt the flames from spreading to nearby communities.

New Brunswick forest ranger Madeline Honeyman witnessed firsthand the devastation that wreaked havoc on the village of Lytton in British Columbia's southern interior when she and colleagues were deployed in the region at the beginning of July.

"It was hard to see so much destruction and loss," said Honeyman, who has been working in the Hampton district that covers areas from the Hopewell Rocks through to Saint John's Harbour Bridge since 2019.

"When people say that you're going out to fight a forest fire, you think of trees and wildlife – which is still very devastating. But in this case, it was communities, houses, and people's livelihoods."

The Lytton Creek blaze broke out on June 30 after several days of record-breaking hot weather, causing the population of roughly 250 people to flee. Two people were killed and the fire destroyed 90 per cent of the village.

Honeyman also helped fight the out-of-control blaze near Ashcroft, just 8.5 kilometres south of the town, where the municipality of Ashcroft and Ashcroft Indian Band were under an evacuation alert.

The New Brunswick fire crew conducted burn backs, which involved building a wet line along the fire's edge to halt its spread.

Daily, members would search the land for "small smokes," or spot fires, in the black zone, terrain that had already burned to the ground, to prevent them from growing back into large infernos.

"The (community had) already been through so much, so to see any smoke up on the mountain top would just scare them to death," said Honeyman, of the crew's role to provide peace of mind to the villagers who were just beginning to return after evacuating.

Her first time deployed outside the province, Honeyman described the experience as difficult, and often heartbreaking, as she witnessed the devastation the community had suffered.

In June, the Lytton area broke the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. It was also hotter than the all-time record highs for all of Europe and South America, according to national and international media.

The Lytton fire, like so many forest fires, burned so hot the forest's root system was ablaze.

"With the heat and the temperatures out there, it would cause them to flare up, and in some of these places, the core of the trees would be burning," Honeyman said. "You couldn't tell until the sun hits them in the right way, and the flames would shoot up.

"The winds are very unpredictable in that area," she continued. "We called 3 p.m. the witching hour. And essentially around 3 p.m. or a bit later, the winds would almost shift on you. And what you've been working on that day, would soon be under attack."

But despite the difficulty of witnessing the destruction, Honeyman said there was hopefulness in the community, which presented itself in the way the beleaguered villagers would welcome the fire crews.

"It was very heartwarming to see communities affected so much by this destruction and loss and seeing them just being so thankful and appreciative of us being there."

Nick Brown, a spokesperson with New Brunswick's Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development, said currently five firefighters are deployed in B.C. and 21 in Manitoba. There are 18 in Ontario, where forest fires have forced more than 3,000 people to evacuate their homes in the northern region. To date, 113 firefighters have been mobilized across Canada.

New Brunswick is a Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre member, which helps coordinate aid among provinces and other countries.

"We often provide assistance when conditions permit, and with the present and predicted low fire hazard across our province, we are able to make staff available to help," Brown wrote in an email.

Robin Grant, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting