One of the many problems on a large campaign fire is supply and the associated supply management. Most of the time, the supply chain works as it should. However, when things go wrong in the supply chain, they have a tendancy to go wrong in a big way.
Not a bad place to come home to every night.
On a daily basis, hundreds of fire fighters in the line camps require everything from food to clothes to fire line equipment. How much needs to be ordered? When does it have to arrive? Does it need to be transported by road? By plane? Helicopter? Boat? Para-drop? To get a measure of the magnitude of the supply problem, on Dryden-18 there was
- 70 miles (113 km) of hose on a fire perimeter of 150 miles (241 km);
- 430 fire fighters out on the line.
The fire fighters were consuming daily 3 tons (3,048 kg) of food, including
- 50 gallons (227 liters) of milk;
- 24 pounds (11 kg) of tea and coffee;
- 100 loaves of bread.
To keep it all going, orders were completed in the fire line camps and then forwarded to the base camp where
- more forms were filled out and boxes were checked off;
- paperwork was signed and dated, and,
- orders were finally placed with the various local or more distant businesses.
Eventually, vehicles would start to arrive on a daily basis with everything requested to feed, clothe and equip every single person assigned to the fire. For the most part, everything arrived in a timely manner. Sometimes, local stores were overwhelmed by the volume required and were unable to fill some orders, and sometimes, because of errors, orders got overfilled. Such was the problem on one rather special day.
Fire crews did their job day after day without complaint. Hot. Cold. Rain. Sometimes even in snow—although there was no snow on Dryden-18. They did their jobs in swamps, on dry ground, around lakeshores, along rivers—wherever they could set up a Mark III pump and get it to suck water.
Some of the line camps were in prime locations. Others, not so much. If you've ever been a fire crew member, you'll know exactly what I mean.
In many cases I was the taxi driver that got to spot them where they chose to set up the pump. I recall getting into shore as close as I could, holding power-on. The crewman stepped out onto the skid and then into the water. When he was handed the Mark III, he promptly sunk up to his chin. Hoisting the pump overhead, he calmly walked to shore.
Another time I was sent to pick up a Crew Leader who wanted to take a look at his line. When I pulled up, he was up to his ass in water, crouched in a swamp. He just grinned up at me, opened the door and climbed in. That was the first time I ever saw the man. He was from the base at Macdiarmid on Lake Nipigon in the North Central Region. For many years following that introduction, I worked with him—and many others—while flying on fires and fire contracts in Ontario. I’ve since forgotten his name (thanks to someone who reminded me–it was Ed Hyland), but we used to occasionally joke about our introduction.
Over the years I worked with many hundreds of fire crews in Ontario. They were all professional, trained and extremely proficient at their jobs. As an aviator, when I encountered an Ontario fire crew member, I knew he or she was well-trained, safe and efficient when working with aircraft of any type. Each and every one of them worked hard in a difficult and dangerous occupation.
They also had a tremendous sense of humour, and sometimes they played hard too. You know who you are.
Huge areas of blowdown had been created in July of 1973 when hurricane-force winds of 90 miles an hour or more blew through the region. Prolonged drought in early 1974 created perfect conditions for dry lightning to ignite the blowdown and create all kinds of control problems. For example, ground access is extremely difficult and air attack results are less effective.
Dry lighting went through various parts of the region towards the end of June, 1974. What followed in northwestern Ontario was unprecedented at that time, with the exception of the large fires north of Red Lake in 1961.
In the summer of 1974, if you volunteered for firefighting–and many did–you were classified as an EFF and paid $3.80 an hour, plus meals and a bed. At that time, EFF were untrained personnel hired on a temporary basis to fight forest fires. The E is for Extra or Emergency Fire Fighter.
At Dryden’s Government Dock, a tent campsite had been set up for incoming fire crews that had not yet been assigned to existing fires. The Memorial Arena was turned into the area’s equipment cache.
At the time, OMNR operated a fleet of Tracker aircraft that had been modified to drop retardant. Ontario’s fleet of large water-dropping aircraft wouldn’t be introduced until the mid-80s, although subsequent to Ontario’s Tracker experiece, PBY* of the Canso variety were contracted for a number of years.
June 29, 1974
- A fire believed to be caused by lightning destroyed Korzinski’s pool room and taxi stand in Eagle River.
- Downtown Kenora narrowly escaped disaster when two helicopters began a bucketing operation on the Lindstrom and Nelson lumber yard. A fire had broke out around 6:45 p.m.
- The Campbell Brothers appliance store was destroyed, while the Northland Hotel suffered smoke damage.
- Five other businesses located in the same block were saved.
- Initial attack was attempted on Dryden-18. It failed.
Already there were large fires in the region, but none approaching the scope of what would soon occur.
*PB represented Patrol Bomber, and Y designated the manufacturer as Consolidated Aircraft in the U.S. Canadian-manufactured PBYs were called Cansos (designated PBV), and were built by Canadian Vickers. If I remember correctly, the license endorsement is CV-540.
The sleepy forest fire season in northwestern Ontario finally kicked in with a vengeance, when, after a long spell of drought, dry lightning ran through the district. Dryden-16 was ignited not far from the Federal Government’s Experimental Lakes Area at Hayes Lake. Given the values associated with this operation (at the time about a million dollars), maximum resources were committed to the fire. An understandably nervous Experimental Lakes management official was somewhat mollified by the size and subsequent success of this fire control effort.
Initially, we were doing so much flying on 16 that Marc Pigeon and I were unable to get back to town, and we ended up staying overnight at the Experimental Lakes site. Through the kindness of staff and summer students, we managed to get clean clothes to wear when we were unable to return to town for six or seven nights.
By June 30, fire crews were just beginning to get a handle on Dryden-16 when word of a nearby new blaze was radioed to us. Given the proximity of the existing suppression operation, we were the first to attempt an initial attack on Dryden-18; however, wind, drought conditions and blowdown prevailed, and before long we had another large fire on our hands.
This new start in blowdown served to fan the flames of Dryden-16. The two fires joined, and what control success we had on 16 was now to be the beginnings of a monster–although we didn’t know that at the time. That would be no disappointment for the company, since the appropriate pickle jar was quickly filling with much-needed cash at short-term hire rates to finance the equipment Viking had purchased.
Even Viking's 204 ended up on Dryden-18 with Harv Easton doing the flying.
As the days progressed and drought and wind prevailed over the long term, it became obvious that additional resources were required beyond what was available within the province. Helicopters, fixed-wing air attack aircraft, and crews were all brought in from other jurisdictions to help in the suppression efforts.