By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs
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Oromocto, New Brunswick — Residents of Oromocto, New Brunswick were understandably alarmed when, in the fall of 2017, three separate fires burned over 1,200 hectares of the Range and Training Area (RTA) at nearby 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown (5 CDSB).
Area residents were at the mercy of winds which, when not in their favour, carried enough smoke from the base to make one local believe her own home might be on fire.
In fact, the fire burning closest to town never got closer than three kilometres from the edge of the base, and the nearest home is further still from that point.
Jeffrey Smith and Jonathan Waye, respectively 5 CDSB’s Forestry Superintendent and Forest Operations Inspector, recalled the unusual factors that contributed to the 2017 fires.
“Last fall was a big product of the weather,” said Mr. Waye. “If we hadn’t had two days of 50 kilometre an hour winds, we wouldn’t have had the incidents we had. It wouldn’t have spread nearly as much.”
“It was an abnormally dry fall,” Mr. Smith added. “But still, the planning, the management, went well. Everything went textbook, really.”
Focusing on fire prevention year-round
That success, and the relative infrequency, of significant fires in the RTA are a testament to the very proactive way they and their team of 13 approach their work. They do not simply respond to fires but rather work year-round on prevention measures driven by a wildland fire management plan that is reviewed and updated annually.
The process includes controlled burns each spring to reduce material that could fuel future fires on the training area, most of which is scrub land along with a mix of grassland and forested areas.
“We’re doing hazard reduction burning in the spring – controlled under robust weather parameters and other constraints that we have – in order to mitigate risk of the military starting a fire that has potential to leave the base or become out of control,” said Mr. Smith.
Spring burns managed with all available resources
The process of hazard reduction burning is run in essentially the same way as an actual fire incident, he added, and similarly involves many other elements both on the base and off. 5 CDSB’s Joint Meteorological Centre provides vital weather observations. Civilian contractors provide observations from the air in helicopters when required. Range Control provides range safety support, and Operations Services provides logistical support.
Careful attention paid during live-fire training
A team of personnel qualified on specialized heavy equipment can also deal with instances of fires in the RTA.
This all helps determine what parts of the training area need to be the focus in a given spring, in addition to the Static Range Impact Area, which is where artillery shells and other munitions are fired and which may not have exploded as expected, making it a perennial priority for cleanup.
“There are also other areas that are targeted for the spring burn because of the frequency of fire starts from military training,” said Mr. Smith.
Base mixed-use events include recreation
The RTA encompasses some 110,000 hectares in total – making it the largest military facility in Eastern Canada – but only about a third of it actually takes live fire in training exercises. The rest remains suitable for a wide range of recreational uses, such as hunting and fishing, which base officials facilitate.
“There's a trapping club on the base,” Mr. Smith added, “an ATV club, and every summer there's a rocket club that uses the RTA.”
Fire prevention has come a long way
Personnel at 5 CDSB are mindful of the impact operations can have on local residents and remain prepared to communicate about those when necessary. They also maintain a close relationship with provincial government partners to keep them apprised in the event of fire.
Mr. Smith, a native of the Oromocto area, was a junior high school student in the spring of 1986 when a fire spread off base from the RTA and destroyed a home and a substantial amount of public property. He said fire prevention on the base has come a long way since.
“It burned to the St. John River in a day,” he recalled, “and there were evacuations. There have been a lot of advances in our programs – a lot of steps forward from there. There were some other big fires in ’93 and ’94, which we eclipsed or matched last year. Those types of things help to remind people that fire management is important.”