This story is a part of World on Fireplace, a five-part podcast that takes us to the entrance traces of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded through the COVID-19 pandemic, every episode examines what it takes to search out hope within the midst of concern and destruction. Wildfires price us our well being, our houses and our communities, but folks in all places rebuild and never simply survive — however thrive.

Kevin Parkinson ignites slow-burning forest fires with a particular form of ammunition — hundreds of tiny fireballs shot from the air into the bushes beneath.

Spewed from the mouth of a steel field, the spheres cascade by means of the treetops earlier than hitting the forest ground and bursting into flame.

The method entails objects that seem like Ping-Pong balls, and “the Ping-Pong balls are crammed with potassium permanganate,” Parkinson mentioned. The machine injects glycol — antifreeze — into every ball earlier than dropping it onto the bottom.

“After about 25 to 30 seconds, it creates a chemical response contained in the ball and the ball will catch on hearth,” mentioned Parkinson, in an interview for the CBC podcast World on Fireplace.

Parkinson, a wildfire operations officer primarily based in Slave Lake, Alta., is without doubt one of the few folks within the province skilled within the complicated physics of prescribed burns.

Prescribed burns are performed throughout Alberta yearly to assist eradicate potential gasoline for wildfires, together with lifeless wooden and underbrush. The scorched areas left behind typically function a barrier between the forest and residential communities.

‘A deliberate wildfire’

The machine Parkinson typically makes use of to ignite these fires is known as an aerial ignition system. A completely automated contraption that hangs from the stomach of a helicopter, the tools is helpful in distant expanses of forest or grassland too troublesome or harmful to succeed in on the bottom.

The expertise is not precisely cutting-edge, but it surely works.

“This piece of kit, the primary one got here round in 1970,” Parkinson mentioned. “They’ve upgraded some options and designs on it, however total the idea is fairly near what was initially developed.

“You may put this piece of kit behind the helicopter with you and when you could have 20,000 balls, then you’ll be able to go all day.”

Parkinson is a nationally licensed ignition specialist, one in all solely 10 in Alberta, with 14 years of expertise orchestrating wildfires. He’s a member of a particular provincial aerial ignition workforce.

A drip torch is used to ignite an space of dry grass in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2017. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Fires are a part of the pure cycle of the boreal forest. Outdated stands of bushes which have been left untouched for too lengthy might be tinderboxes. By bringing new progress to the forest ground, prescribed burns will help restore the boreal habitat and cut back the wildfire danger.

“We do numerous small hazard-reduction burning each spring and fall round communities,” Parkinson mentioned.

“Some are larger-scale prescribed burns, a few of them are to convey again habitat for elk or bighorn sheep. 

“Principally, it is a deliberate wildfire. I have been concerned in among the bigger burns right here in Alberta. A few of them have lasted two or three days.”

No room for error

Prescribed burns can even assist through the peak of Alberta’s wildfire season — scorching, dry summers which have change into more and more prone to uncontrolled fires. 

When the flames change into so intense that air tankers can not fly, Parkinson and his crew can manipulate the flames —  by setting smaller, extra strategic fires, he can push a wildfire in a safer course and even drive it to journey towards pure hearth breaks like lakes and rivers. 

Generally, a extra intense hearth is required than those generated by fireballs injected with anti-freeze. That is when Parkinson will pull out a heli-torch.

A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press)

The 45-gallon drum hangs beneath a helicopter like a pendulum, capturing globs of a lava-like liquid into the forest.

“We put our burn gasoline and our gelling brokers within the drum after which it hooks as much as the helicopter,” Parkinson mentioned.

The drum “hangs about 22 toes beneath the helicopter and as we’re flying, when the pilot hits an ignition swap, it engages a pump and likewise the propane, which lights the hearth.

“Then the gel will fall down by means of the hearth and fall down by means of to the bushes. This lets you get extra intense hearth behaviour sooner.”

‘We do not rush’

With all these dramatic pyrotechnics, Parkinson’s work requires surgical precision. For bigger fires, a central command centre manages the work of tactical groups on the bottom.

Crews are deployed, however solely after each side of the hearth’s potential behaviour within the panorama has been rigorously accounted for.

Parkinson should assess the terrain and climate circumstances. It is a cautious examine — winds blowing too onerous or within the incorrect course, for example, may show harmful. An absence of humidity may create vital depth.

The hearth should not attain past the containment space. The planning concerned in a single prescribed burn can take months, even years.

“There’s a variety of prep work,” Parkinson mentioned. “I did a prescribed burn down in [the town of] Rocky Mountain Home. That burn plan was on the books for 10 years to get the best circumstances for us to have the ability to do it. 

“We do not rush making an attempt to do these prescribed burns. Now we have to verify all the best parameters are in place earlier than we exit.”

On this video nonetheless from 2019, bushes are seen on hearth in Hillville, New South Wales state, Australia. (The Related Press/Australian Broadcasting Company)

With 26 wildfire seasons underneath his belt, Parkinson has come to understand the phrase “combating hearth with hearth.”  

However there’s a distinction between an orchestrated burn and one which has taken on a lifetime of its personal.

With a prescribed burn, “all the things is deliberate intimately,” he mentioned. “You are extra proactive than reactive. With a wildfire, you by no means know what is going on to happen.”


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