People & Culture

Excerpt from Slashburner: Hot Times in the British Columbia Woods

Slashburner publishes Sept. 19, 2020

  • Sep 16, 2020
  • 1,019 words
  • 5 minutes
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The helitorch didn’t break down too often, but when it did, it was always at a critical moment. Once ignition has started on a block it has to be continued in order for the burn to be carried off successfully, particularly in the case of a convection burn. If the helitorch should stop working before the ignition sequence is completed, the central fire can die down and you’ll lose the indraft that is necessary to keep the burn contained. This happened to us while we were lighting up a block in the Beaverfoot Valley. The helicopter had made a pass with the helitorch, but something went wrong with it and the pilot had to land to find the problem. I wasn’t certain if it could be fixed in time, and darkness was fast approaching, so I went in with the crew to finish lighting the block by hand. We weren’t aware that the pilot had fixed the torch until he suddenly flew overhead and started lighting again. It was quite dark by then, so the shower of flaming napalm looked really pretty against the sky. We marvelled at the spectacular sight until we suddenly realized that he couldn’t see us on the ground and was heading straight for us, whereupon we had to scramble quickly over the slash to get out of the way. 

Now and then the problem connected with the helitorch was pilot error, as was the case during a broadcast burn in the Bush River valley. The pilot had been flying the torch during light-up and had circled around so his flight path took him over another block on the other side of the river. This block had no road access, as the winter bridge across the river had been removed, and it wasn’t scheduled for burning. During radio communication with the ground crew, the pilot accidentally pressed the button on his cyclic control stick that turned on the helitorch slung under the helicopter, instead of the microphone button, resulting in a few blobs of burning napalm landing in the slash. He thought it better not to explain what had actually happened, so he merely informed me helpfully that he’d just noticed a spot fire on the block below him. The wind was blowing the convection column above the block we were lighting in the opposite direction from where he was, so it was physically impossible for a spot fire to have started. One of the company foresters and I ended up wading, laden with pump and hose, through the chestdeep, ice-cold water in order to put the fire out. I puzzled over how this fire started for years, until one of the crew told me that the pilot had confessed to him one day. 

Usually the pilots flew without anyone else on board when the helitorch was in operation, as it reduced the amount of weight the helicopter would have to lift as it flew around the block. Sometimes getting airborne with a heavy load could take a bit of work, as we discovered one day after I’d loaded the cargo compartment and back seat of the helicopter with jerry cans of gasoline and then climbed aboard next to the pilot. The helitorch was attached to the machine as well, and though we managed to lift off the ground, there wasn’t enough power to lift the helitorch as well, as it had a full drum of napalm installed. The pilot ended up flying forward a few feet off the ground, dragging the helitorch along the gravel road as he tried to get enough momentum and lift to get everything airborne. Fortunately we didn’t seem to generate too many sparks as the torch scraped and bounced along behind us. 

I enjoyed the few occasions I was able to fly with pilots when the torch was slung underneath, even if we weren’t actually burning slash with it. One afternoon we were flying back to town after completing a burn, ahead of the crew, who were driving back with the rest of the equipment. The road they were on wound through cutblocks separated by residual standing timber, so they’d soon lost sight of the helicopter. We decided to give them a surprise, and the pilot laid a line of burning napalm across the road just ahead of the lead truck. They were turning a corner in the timber at the time and didn’t see the flames until the last moment. As they screeched to a halt, the pilot laid another line of fire behind the trucks so they couldn’t back up. They weren’t able to drive through the flames, as one vehicle had a leaking fuel tank in the back that was leaving a trail of flammable liquid on the road behind. The crew had to wait until the fires burned out, but as they pointed out to me when I met them later in the bar, they didn’t mind the holdup in the least, as they were on overtime by then. 

We did something similar while flying over a block we were about to burn on Blackwater Ridge so that the pilot and I could finalize the burning sequence. There were two hunters sitting in the block who didn’t seem to get the message that we wanted them to clear out, as the whole place would shortly be going up in smoke. The torch was slung underneath, so the pilot hovered over a rock outcrop and dropped some burning napalm. The hunters got the message and took off like scared rabbits. The same tactic was used to chase a moose out of another block nearby a few days later. 

One of the best experiences I had was flying in a helicopter over a block after it had been lit up, after dark. The sight of the mass of flames below us, and the heat that was radiating upward, led me to contemplate where I’d most likely end up in an afterlife.


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