Sitting shotgun in a Parks Canada passenger van on the afternoon of May 23, Kim Weir was bouncing in her seat.
As the vehicle rounded a corner to an open meadow, she spotted what she’d been hoping for.
“I see smoke!” she said, clapping her hands.
Weir’s jubilance was understandable. For her and the rest of Jasper National Park’s fire management team, smoke on Mount Greenock had been a long time coming. After 11 years of planning, finally, on May 23, a perfect combination of fuel moisture levels, wind and weather patterns came together to enable the burning of 500 hectares of the Vine Creek area. The area is 20 km north of the Jasper townsite; planners have wanted to create a fire guard there but for the last eight years had been shut down by less-than-ideal burning conditions.
“When you put fire on the landscape you need those exact conditions,” Weir said.
At the 11th hour, however, the Vine Creek prescribed fire almost didn’t happen again. Fire crews were alerted late on May 22 to an uncontrolled fire at the east end of Jasper National Park. A CN train engine had sparked a one hectare wildfire; fire and vegetation specialist Dave Smith said the fire had the potential to do major damage.
“Had the wind been heavy and had it been blowing from the west [the fire] would have been knocking on the province’s door,” Smith said.
Fortunately, the winds were light. Tankers, called in from the province, air-dropped fire retardant on the flames and a skeleton crew monitored the wildfire until it was extinguished. Meanwhile, the window for Vine Creek was getting smaller. Saturday would have to be the day, forecasts were showing.
“It can take years for conditions to align,” Weir said.
As Parks Canada managers and initial attack fire crews watched from the staging grounds near the Snaring warden station, a small helicopter carrying a heli torch dripped a napalm-like mixture of diesel and gasoline onto the southern slopes of Mount Greenock. With Smith in the Incident Command post high above in another helicopter, fire specialist Randy Fingland picked the spots to torch so as to control the fire’s ignition pattern.
“You want to control the intensity of the fire and its spread,” Smith said.
And it was intense. Ten storey-high flames could be seen from the staging area. A mushroom cloud of smoke billowed into the atmosphere. Still, the fire was behaving as Parks Canada had planned—it didn’t jump over the ridge of Mount Greenock into the densely-forested Snake Indian Valley, nor did it threaten the white bark pine stands in the mountain’s alpine zones.
“Protecting white bark pine and creating a good bed surface for that endangered species was one of our objectives,” Smith said.
Other goals included putting a major roadblock in the easterly spread of mountain pine beetle and restoring the open Douglas fir savannahs of Jasper National Park.
Four days after the prescribed fire, it seemed as though all of the team’s objectives had been met. However, with crews still engaged in mopping up efforts, Smith was reluctant to celebrate just yet.
“Not until the fire is out,” he said.