Skip to content

Viewpoint: ‘Water dome’ deployed to protect Shuswap sawmill during wildfire

Shuswap Passion by Jim Cooperman

Some people may think it was a miracle that the Interfor sawmill at Adams Lake survived the firestorm on August 18, 2023.

In reality, the mill is operational today because of foresight, much hard work and many thousands of gallons of water.

The effort to protect the mill began in 2017 when a lightning strike ignited a fire on the hillside above the mill, which an Interfor team managed to extinguish with shovels, “piss” cans, pumps and hoses that had to be dragged by hand to the fire.

After the 2017 fire, the forestry staff realized how vulnerable the mill was and they began to plan how best to create fire breaks that could protect them during the next fire. Through a carefully thought-out combination of small clearcuts, thinning and the opening of old roads, the fuel was significantly reduced on the hillside forest above the mill. Additionally, some strategic pile burning was done to further reduce combustible material and improve access to the area around the mill. When the firestorm arrived last year, this thinning and harvesting operation slowed it down as it passed by the mill and helped prevent it from reaching structures.

The Bush Creek wildfire began on July 12, and it continued to grow because not enough resources were deployed in the first few days. Some local contractors requested to action it because it was accessible and close to cutblocks and roads, but the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) denied their help. Fire breaks were built to prevent it from moving south, but these were not defended after dark and the fire crossed over when the winds kicked up.

As the fire grew closer, the mill staff began to actively protect the valuable industrial site. Removing the fuel was key, so log deliveries were halted and the inventory of logs on land was consumed. Most of the lumber was shipped out along with all the hog fuel and shavings to ensure the mill yard was nearly empty of combustible materials.

It takes a massive “water dome” to protect a sawmill and this was accomplished with 20 giant water cannons, along with over 70 sprinklers attached to all the structures. The water came from the lake via one very powerful pump powered by a diesel generator. They called the mill site a “rainforest,” because their Kestrel weather meters showed lower temperatures and much higher humidity than the surrounding area.

A fire guard was built just north of the mill that they called the “palisades,” and their plan was that if it was breached by the fire, then everyone would have to leave the mill except for five workers who were accompanied by some BCWS structural protection workers.

When the fire breached the “palisades” at approximately 9:30 a.m. on July 18 the evacuation order was given and everyone drove out, including most of the crews who had brought trailers full of structural protection gear to protect the neighbourhood, which had to be left in the parking lot because there was no time to install the pumps and hoses.

The five workers who remained included a millwright, an electrician and three managers whose primary job was to keep the pump and the sprinklers working. Their escape plan was to jump in a boat and head out across the lake, which fortunately they never had to do.

The wildfire burned thousands of hectares of forest, including a significant amount of timber within the Interfor Mill’s operating area. As their logging operation shifts to salvage logging, they plan to focus next on making the unburnt forest more resilient to fire through fuel reduction work. They also plan to improve their fire suppression capabilities so they can do a better job of fighting future fires. Last year, their crews were concentrated on preventing the East Adams Lake fire from moving north and their efforts were largely successful.

Interfor’s mill at Adams Lake is the third largest sawmill in the province. Protecting it was key to the local economy as it ensured that hundreds of jobs remained secure. As the climate continues to heat up causing more fires, it will be imperative that forestry operations be directed to protect communities. As well, when wildfires approach, we now know how important it will be to create moisture domes for defending neighbourhoods.

Read more: Viewpoint: Shuswap communities in sync with love for live music

Read more: Spot fires burning near Adams Lake mill in the Shuswap