Playing with fire
The slashburners who set controlled fires in the woods are a breed unto themselves.
June 12th, 2020
Piles of wood debris — called slash — left behind by logging operations in B.C. must be destroyed by slashburning crews each year who work under difficult and dangerous conditions.
On Vancouver Island, in 1938, a huge fire from sparks of logging machinery blackened nearly 75,000 acres. Named the Bloedel Fire, its size and spread were caused by thousands of acres of slash that had accumulated after years of logging.
Thereafter, each autumn logging operators on the B.C. coast and Vancouver Island were obligated to dispose of their accumulations of logging slash by controlled burning, thus limiting the chances of a major conflagration in the woods next summer. In 1967, these regulations were extended to the rest of the province.
A whole new vocation was developed—that of the slashburner—as Nicholas Raeside describes in his memoir, Slashburner: Hot Times in the British Columbia Woods (Harbour $24.95).
“While many firefighters greeted the arrival of cooler weather with relief as they looked forward to well-earned days off,” says Raeside, “there were others who couldn’t wait for the fall slashburning program to begin.
“Possibly it was the prospect of a few more weeks of employment that appealed to many, but there were a few who rather enjoyed the irony of being paid to set fires in the woods.”
Nicholas Raeside was firmly in the latter camp.
At the age of seven, Nicholas Raeside put out his first bushfire near a holiday cabin he was staying in, using a wet burlap sack. “It might have been easier,” he recalls, “if I hadn’t been barefoot.”
As a teenager in high school, he volunteered to fight local wild fires. This time he had footwear, he says, “although it wasn’t entirely satisfactory, as they were plastic sandals.” The sandals melted but a passion for fighting wildfires was ignited.
Raeside did a variety of jobs until he was hired by a company that provided contract forest fire control service. It was a rough calling but he stayed in that line of work throughout the 1970s and ’80s.
His first training camp, near Golden, consisted of old buildings left over from the Mica Dam project. He was the second person to arrive in the camp, which meant he had the pick of the bunkhouse rooms. From earlier stays at a logging camp on the coast, he knew it was never advisable to inspect mattresses too closely.
Raeside remembers he had to search for light bulbs that still worked, which revealed the floors were littered with sand and old cigarette butts. The ceilings were covered with fungus, “peeling off in lumps and dropping onto the mattress.”
Eventually he would learn to rappel from helicopters. This was the way they often deployed crews onto fires burning on inaccessible terrain. The training was unforgettable. “It was a one-way flight,” he recalls. “The only way to get back to the ground was to slide down the two-hundred-foot rope attached to the side of the aircraft as it hovered above the airport runway.”
Safety measures were far from extreme. Raeside found his first slash burning jacket in the leftover trash in a ‘crummy’ (the nickname for a large vehicle used for transporting logging crews, referring to the general condition of its interior).
“The back of [the jacket] ended up being burned through…with the result that the feather stuffing started falling out,” says Raeside. “The company office staff weren’t too thrilled by the fact that I’d leave a trail of dirty feathers behind me when I walked through the building, so I mended the damage with duct tape.
“Eventually the jacket got so soaked in diesel oil that it was too much even for me. It was ritually burned at the end of one burning season, along with the jersey and jeans I’d been wearing concurrently.”
Staying in remote camps was part of the job. A typical packed lunch included “canned beef hash, canned peaches, and Stoned Wheat Thins. Baker’s Semi-Sweet Chocolate might be present as an additional treat, unless some evil bastard had earlier rifled the pack.”
To this day, slashburning can be grueling work. Arduous labour requires large amounts of calories. “It took a lot of energy to pack equipment up mountainsides,” says Raeside, estimating he consumed close to ten thousand calories a day. According to the U.S. Forest Service, active firefighters consume at least seven thousand calories per day.
It’s never safe. There was a constant danger that small, controlled burns will get away from their prescribed boundaries and set fire to adjacent stands of trees, something that the Forest Service calls an “escape” or euphemistically an “overachievement.”
Unexpected winds or other bad weather could cause these escapes so part of Raeside’s job was often monitoring the weather. As a foreman, if he had misgivings, he would cancel a burn, a difficult decision when expensive equipment and manpower were already deployed.
“Sometimes, though, it was better to write off the costs and give up for the day as opposed to lighting up and have a really expensive next few days if the weather did turn out nasty.”
There were times when Raeside found peculiar beauty in his work. Once, as he was leaving a fire that proved too deadly to fight, he looked back to see a spruce tree go up in flames. “This one was unusual, though, in that a crimson flame wrapped around it in a spiral, looking much like the cellophane wrapping that’s twisted around presentation bunches of flowers.”
By the fall of 1989, Raeside’s days on steep terrain were taking their toll; an old hip injury was making every mountainside climb difficult. He had to give up slashburning and return to forest fire suppression on the coast. He eventually retired to Nanoose Bay, where he says, “the only burning I get to do now is the occasional pile of branches in the backyard.” 978-1-55017-898-2
Photo Credit: All photos by Nicholas Raeside.