Fighting forest fires is a dangerous occupation

Catherine Mardon says an intense fire can burn away all the oxygen leaving little to breath.

Catherine Mardon says an intense fire can burn away all the oxygen leaving little to breath.

May16, 2016

I was probably like everyone else. I was glued to the news in horror watching the fires in Fort McMurray, one hand on the remote and one hand on my rosary. Unlike others though, I can close my eyes and remember what a forest fire smells and sounds like.

I may not look like it now, but when I was younger, I was a trained forester. My university classes in forestry may have taught me how to cut a fireline, but they couldn't have prepared me for the sound a tree makes right before it explodes.

The irony of a forest fire is that for many forests, fire is not only beneficial, it is necessary. Most of our Western forests are fire climax forests. That means they actually need the presence of fire in order to reproduce themselves.

The trees are resistant to most ordinary ground fires and their seeds are covered in a waxy substance that must be burned away before the seed can germinate. Fire clears land for new seedlings, and the fire leaves the soil fertile. That's if things progress normally.

Ideally, fires should be slow moving, when the temperature is lower and the humidity is higher. That keeps the fire in the undergrowth. The trees survive, and it makes the forest healthier.

When it's hot, when the wind is blowing hard, and when the humidity is low, that's not what happens. The fire can crown. That's where it climbs the trees and spreads branch to branch through the forest, killing the trees.

Sometimes a fire will do both. It will start on the ground, literally boiling the tree sap to the top of the trees, and then catch in the crowns where the flammable turpentine in the sap has accumulated and can explode. It sounds a bit like a tea kettle whistling right before the explosion.

Fighting forest fires is as dangerous as you can imagine and more so. Fire can travel at times faster than you can run. The heat of an intense fire can literally burn away all the oxygen leaving little to breathe.


To fight a fire, you must deprive it of fuel or oxygen. The first line of defence is to cut a fireline. That could mean using a bulldozer in accessible areas or by hand with axes and shovels. Dirt provides little fuel, so the fire can burn itself out.

Another way is to start a backfire by starting a small fire to burn towards the larger fire so that potential fuel is consumed. Deciding where to put these lines depends on topography, wind direction and weather.

Sometimes you can't cut a fireline fast enough to contain a raging fire. To take away the oxygen, a fire can be smothered by water or flame retardants.

I remember vividly my first forest fire. At first the smell was warm and fuzzy like sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows. When I looked out of the window and saw trees melting before my eyes, those warm and fuzzy feelings disappeared. When my boots hit the ground, I was shocked at how hot it was.


I broke out in an instant, all body sweat. My bloodstream filled with so much adrenaline I was shaking. I began to dig a fireline as if my life depended on it, and I suppose it did.

At one point our supervisor, a grizzled veteran came by and scolded me for digging too deep. He told me I wasn't digging foxholes. My father once told me the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. There aren't any on firelines either.

I survived obviously, but I also determined that fighting wildland fires wasn't going to be one of my career goals. The men and women fighting these fires are dealing with heat, dehydration, fatigue and fear. I wish I could have been there with them.

All I can realistically do is pray, contribute and open my home to evacuees. When the extra plate is passed at Mass, please remember the sacrifices of the fighters in addition to those who have lost their homes. They are the ones running towards the flames.

(Catherine Mardon is a retired attorney and student at Newman Theological College. She is an author, and her books can be found on or