Tag Archives: forest fires

A case of cola oversupply

A lone semi pulled off the brand-new road in a cloud of dust and into the Dryden-18 base camp at Pine Beach on Eagle Lake. People rushed out to open the trailer doors and unload the supplies that would be needed out in the line camps. To their great surprise, the trailer wasn’t filled with groceries and line camp supplies.

Premier Bill Davis tours the fire

District Fire Manager Stan Sprager and Premier Bill Davis land back at the base camp on July 11. Marc Pigeon in GODX did the flying honors.

Nope, no camp supplies here.

It was filled with cases of cola. Once the trailer was completely unloaded, the tally turned out to be ten thousand cases of cola. Considering the number of men on a fire this size, that wouldn’t be a problem. Eventually, the cola would get used. If not, what was left over would end up in warehouses across the Province and be used over the course of the summer

However, there was just one problem, and not an insignificant one: Bill Davis, the Premier of Ontario, and Leo Bernier, the Minister of Natural Resources, were both due to arrive for a tour of the Dryden-18 base camp on the very day that people in the base camp were scratching their heads over what the hell to do with the giant cola shipment.

While both men were hustled out and loaded into a helicopter for an airborne tour of the fire line, base-camp bodies scrambled to erect line camp tents. Once erected, the tents were then filled with cola cases stacked in the shape of the tent. When Davis and Bernier returned to Pine Beach, they received their requested tour of the huge tent camp.

Neither Davis nor Bernier pulled back the flap on any of the tents to look inside.

It turned out that a zero had been mistakenly added to an order, resulting in a mad scramble by the supplier to provide the requested product.

Filling the orders

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.

Late July timeline

July 9, 1974

The count of firefighters had risen to 350. A ray of hope momentarily appeared when some rain fell in the Vermilion Bay area, allowing the 1,200 resident and tourists to return.

Air attack aircraft from B.C., Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Québec were on-scene and extremely busy.

The U.S.F.S. infra-red sensing aircraft remained on-site to provide mapping detail through the smoke.

July 11

  • Premier Bill Davis and Natural Resources Minister Leo Bernier toured the fire .
  • 920 persons, including 110 unit crews, 310 EFF, 56 support staff were now in the Region.
  • 129 Ontario Provincial Police officers were scattered throughout the region.

July 25

  • A total of 14 airtankers were working the fire.
  • 26 helicopters were doing the down and dirty work.

August 7

A reporter was flown out to a line camp where a Crew Leader from back east was supervising his 4-man crew and 25 native firefighters. During an interview, the Crew Leader states, “No reasons for me to sleep out here on the ground, is there?” Once that ended up in print, it was the end of his resort vacation at Pine Beach.

More fire than we bargained for

The volatility of the aerial ignition chemicals we were handling shouldn’t be underestimated. Consequently, we tried to take what we thought was great care with the details:

  • we worked in a separate area on the flight line when we were handling the balls and the chemical;
  • anti-freeze and the final product were never carried together until loaded on board;
  • the balls were carried on board GODW in metal garbage cans with the lids secured;
  • we swept out the aircraft at the end of a run to get rid of any stray potassium that may have gotten caught up in the slipstream.

For the most part, our care and caution was rewarded without incident. However…

On one occasion, Sonny was standing beside GODW while loading a batch of green garbage bags filled with ping-pong balls into metal garbage cans. He picked up a bag and it immediately burst into flames while he was still holding on to it. When Sonny proceeded to depart the area in a hasty feets don’t fail me now manner, the flaming bag was deposited next to a drum of turbo fuel.

I would have been right behind him, but discretion being the better part of valour, instead I reached into GODW, grabbed the fire extinguisher and used it to good purpose. Why the spontaneous combustion occurred was anyone’s guess, but obviously our careful handling of the two chemicals was brought into question. No doubt some anti-freeze had gotten into the mix somewhere towards the end of the line.

The very next day all of the helipads on the base camp flight line were equipped with large extinguishers. No further incidents occurred.

We need more fire!

Link to Part 1 – Burning out

Burnout results

After some experimenting with the OAID machine and after obtaining some success igniting small test acreages, demand for existing stocks of the chemical and the ping-pong balls we needed was dwindling fast. We required ping-pong balls and potassium permanganate in massive quantities, much beyond the capabilities of the commercial supplier who couldn’t keep up with demand. To tackle aerial ignition on the scale that was required, a huge manufacturing capability was needed to supply the materials in their final form.

Consequently, the Ministry began scouting around for a building to contain manufacturing operations. The only viable location was the Dryden arena, an old wooden building. Certainly, the timber in the building was extremely dry because of its age, and this was a concern due to the fire hazard of the potassium. Approval was quickly obtained, workers were hired, chemical was delivered, and ping pong ball halves were assembled with the required amount of chemical. Throughout it all, the arena remained standing.

Sonny, with fingernails finally free of potassium, and a pilot clocking hectic hours

Sonny, with fingernails finally free of potassium, and a pilot clocking hectic hours

The ping-pong balls arrived at the base camp in huge green garbage bags. The bags were transferred to metal garbage cans to contain the balls and then loaded into the back of the helicopter. Our thinking was that the metal cans would prevent the balls from contacting the anti-freeze floating around in the slipstream.

During the ignition operation the Burn Boss sat in the front. Sonny Lengyl was the OAID operator in the back of the helicopter. When the hopper was reloaded with balls there was all kinds of loose potassium floating around. Anti-freeze flowed freely in the slipstream and got all over the hands of the operator. When the anti-freeze got under Sonny’s fingers it mixed with potassium permanganate. The smell of smoke wound its way into the front of the helicopter. I thought we were on fire, but it was only Sonny. I landed, he managed to get his fingers under control and we carried on with the burn.

It all seemed like good fun at the time.