Paul Lawson

Paul Lawson

Hydro slash pile could spark big fire in Maple Ridge

The Maple Ridge fire department wants B.C. Hydro to clean up trees torn down for a new right of way

The piles of brush left on the ground are drying out and turning the powerline right of way into a powder keg that could blow and wipe out years of research at the UBC Malcolm Knapp forest.

So the research forest, the mayor and Maple Ridge Fire Department want to get word to B.C. Hydro and its contractor, Flatiron-Graham, which is building a 247-kilometre, 500-kilovolt powerline from Merritt to Coquitlam: speed it up.

“The plan for chipping, that I heard, was to start in August, and that’s too late,” said Paul Lawson, forest manager.

“They need to get this dealt with now.”

Lawson said there are about 100 piles of slash that have been left on the ground from the right of way clearing. As the summer heats up and conditions dry, they’ll turn into tinder and could be starting points for any accidental or deliberate fires that could race up the mountainside at the north end of 232nd Street.

“They’re all targets for arson, basically, is what they are.”

Currently, thanks to cool weather conditions, the forest fire hazard is rated low. But there already was a period of high fire hazard in May during a warm spell. And a fire already occurred in the right of way in April, near the forest.

Maple Ridge Fire Department put out the blaze.

If a fire broke out nearby and spread to the research forest, it could destroy years of forestry work that date back 60 to 70 years.

“They’re all pretty much along the south boundary of the forest, so they’re very vulnerable to this hazard,” Lawson said.

Residents and their homes, which are creeping up the hillside in Silver Valley, are also at risk. You could throw a baseball from the forestry boundary and hit the suburbs, added Lawson.

“So they’re totally at risk for these types of fires, as well.”

Members of the community advisory board for the research forest toured the slash areas and where the forest intersects with the right of way on Saturday.

Fire chief Peter Grootendorst said his department has already written to B.C. Hydro, asking that the slash debris be removed before high hazard times.

Flatiron-Graham has been responding and on Wednesday was to meet with the fire department, forestry and FlatIron to work out a fire response plan.

Grootendorst said the powerline right of way stretches 14 kilometres through Maple Ridge, which works out to about 200 hectares.

“So it’s a fairly big area of clearing that’s been done.”

The wood waste can’t be burned off, but can be chipped on site, then hauled away.

But if it’s left too long and conditions get too dry, even bringing in a chipper could create a fire hazard.

“We’re encouraging them to start on it fairly early. The longer it stays, the more drier it gets,” Grootendorst said.

He’s also wants to identify the high-hazard areas so the Flatiron knows which areas to target.

“The only problem is we’re running out of time.”

B.C. Hydro has on-site crews and fire-fighting tools, such as water tankers, tool caches and helicopters, on standby.

“We take this risk very seriously. The contractor is adhering to all applicable regulations and has developed a comprehensive plan to manage the fire risk,” Hydro spokesperson Simi Heer said in an e-mail.

Maple Ridge Fire Department, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations are also cooperating with joint training and pooling of resources and equipment, and most employees have received firefighting training, Heer added.

Earlier this year, the Alouette River Management Society complained about clear-cutting for the right of way going right to the banks of Clayton Creek, which could cause siltation in the water and water temperatures to climb, damaging fish.

But Heer said that six logs have been hauled out by helicopter and another 12 hauled out from a non-fish bearing stream.

Hydro and the contractor also plan on selling the useful logs that have been cut as a result of the right-of-way clearing.

Some logs are still in the streams, but they were blown down by the wind and aren’t related to construction. Meanwhile, some environmental repairs are underway where there is a risk of erosion. In those cases, willows are planted along with seedlings.

Some logs haven’t been hauled out because approval is being sought from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

“Flatiron-Graham JV continues to work with B.C. Hydro to develop a custom-clearing prescription in the area near the Alouette River to reduce our impacts there,” Heer said.

Final remediation takes place when tower construction is complete.

In stream areas, “the policy is to retain as much existing vegetation as possible.”