Keith Keller was born in Vancouver and grew up in the Fraser Valley. He has been a reporter and a teacher, and spent four summers commercial cod fishing from a one-family island off the Labrador coast. He is the author of Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories of BC's Worst Forest Fires  and the BC bestseller Dangerous Waters: Wrecks and Rescues Off the BC Coast , which was shortlisted for the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award for best BC book of the year. He lives on Denman Island with his wife and two daughters.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories of BC's Worst Forest Fires
Dangerous Waters (Harbour $28.95)
Some of the world's most treacherous waters are off the coast of British Columbia. Denman Island's Keith Keller has gathered 20 survivors' stories of sinkings, strandings and other marine disasters on the B.C. coast in Dangerous Waters (Harbour $28.95).
1 55017 168 2
Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories of BC’s Worst Forest Fires (Harbour $34.95)
from BCBW Winter 2002
Poet Joaquin Milleras called lightning the “aw-ful autograph of God.” This summer California, Arizona and Colorado were the canvas as fires devoured 2.7 million hectares of forest. B.C. got off relatively lightly. This year.
I was in Salmon Arm in 1998 when half the town was forced out of their homes —the largest evacuation in B.C. history. A lightning strike had morphed into a fire storm that had crews scrambling for their lives in steep terrain.
The Silver Creek Fire was a true menace. Some residents lost everything. Homes. Barns. Livelihood.
Firefighters stumbled from the front lines describing a surreal moonscape where one false step could result in a plunge into an ash-filled crater—with embers waiting to fry you at the bottom.
“It looked alive. It looked like a huge serpent,” said a Salmon Arm resident. “I’ve never seen anything that awesome in all my life.”
The inferno had the town and firefighters on the run, yet no one was killed. Ten million dollars later, the fire was tamed; some residents blamed the Forest Service for underestimating winds and not taking the fire seriously enough. Others reminded us fires are part of a natural cycle that’s been broken by modern fire suppression.
Fires are waiting to happen in B.C., and too many of us live in tinder dry fire territory.
Keith Keller’s Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories of BC’s Worst Forest Fires (Harbour $34.95) drops us behind the lines of a dozen of B.C.’s most devastating fires—including Silver Creek (a chapter dubbed Ash Wednesday). Readers are quickly gagging on smoke as Keller takes us inside the 1931 McKinney fire near Rock Creek; so hot that fish were boiled alive in the creeks.
There’s also a lesson on fire dynamics, how fuel, oxygen and heat can converge to bring a fire to life, and how a tree “candles” without warning (an entire tree ignites in an instant). Fires can march across the landscape at frightening speed—90 metres a minute, when gale force winds push from behind.
Vivid first person accounts make for a compelling read. Jack Coates was sent to help a fire crew in danger of being trapped on the McKinney fire, and the experience is seared into the 92-year-old’s memory. “There was a strong wind blowing up the creek and it sounded as though a freight train was coming up the canyon. And coming fast. We made it to an abandoned mining tunnel as the fire crowned over us. Fire was roaring through the treetops, with burning embers flying hundreds of feet ahead and igniting everything in their path.”
The men he was sent to retrieve had managed to escape. Others who fought the McKinney fire were transients, pushed into service from Depression relief camps. Crew bosses reported they worked as hard as any local men; but they were told after the fight was over that the government couldn’t afford to pay them. One veteran firefighter remarks fighting such blazes is like “a war without bullets.”
Jack Hodgins used forest fire as metaphor in his 1998 novel Broken Ground in which World War I veterans settle on Vancouver Island. A 1922 fire storms out of control to mirror the horrors of battle, becoming death itself. Wildfire Wars describes the Bloedel fire that blew up in a nearby region 16 years later. A two-hectare fire on logging operations became a 30,000 hectare giant, fueled by log piles and slash (limbs and treetops left on the ground). People could actually hear it burning five kilometres away. Fifteen hundred men were marshaled, including recruits shipped in from Vancouver.
Hi Churchill was a brakeman on a logging train that ran a gauntlet of fire to save 75 loggers on the wrong side of the fire line. “There was fire on both sides of the track...we made it to headquarters, but the steps on the locomotive and the crummies were all burnt off when we got out.”
Province reporter Harold ‘Torchy’ Anderson called one of these rescue missions a “sight-seeing tour through hell.” Keller plucks other memorable Torchy quotes. One logger quips, “she was fair to middlin’ hot in there.”
Keller, who previously chronicled disasters at sea in his bestseller Dangerous Waters, gives us a strong sense of the hazards of fire, but keeps things in perspective. On average B.C. loses just one person a year to forest fires. An impressive record given our vast, harsh terrain, and a testament to well-trained, professional crews.
Wildfire Wars helps us appreciate the place that firefighting holds in B.C. history and it touches on innovations such as the first use of bulldozers and the integration of the Mars bomber fleet. There’s analysis of firefighting strategies and tales of political infighting among ministry brass. Best of all, Keller tells a good story through the voices of frontline crews.
[Mark Forsythe / BCBW 2002]