Wildfire expert Mike Flannigan describes what is happening in the Elephant Hill fire behind him in CBC’s The Nature of Things’ newest documentary Into the Fire. CBC photo.

Wildfire expert Mike Flannigan describes what is happening in the Elephant Hill fire behind him in CBC’s The Nature of Things’ newest documentary Into the Fire. CBC photo.

CBC documentary to explain science behind BC wildfires

Into the Fire airs Nov. 5 on the Nature of Things

“To understand fire you need three ingredients,” says University of Alberta wildfire expert Mike Flannigan.

You need the fuel, you need ignition, and, most importantly, you need weather, he says.

Flannigan is just one of the voices explaining the science behind fire on CBC’s new documentary Into the Fire, which focuses on the 2017 wildfires in British Columbia and Fort McMurray’s devastating 2016 fire.

“I’ve always been fascinated with fire because I’m scared of it,” says the documentary’s director, Leora Eisen.

At 21, she stumbled out of her apartment through the smoke in Toronto as the fire alarms went off.

“That sort of cemented my fear and fascination,” she says.

A couple of years ago, she read about how climate change was changing fire behaviour.

“I found that interesting because I’m interested in climate change issues in general and that was something I hadn’t really thought of.”

When the Fort McMurray fire happened, the Nature of Things took her up on the documentary she had been pitching for years.

“I wanted to understand what happened in Fort McMurray last year and B.C. this year. Are we just imagining it, or are fires becoming more frequent and more intense? You know what, we’re not imagining it.”

The documentary tells a number of stories and shows the science behind how wildfires work.

Over the summer, Eisen watched the Elephant Hill fire nearly double in size as she filmed.

“It was unbelievable,” she says.

“It is really interesting, because Mike is looking at this giant mushroom cloud of smoke and fire and this firestorm and he explains what is going on, how fires create their own weather and he takes you through the fire’s behaviour.”

Flannigan talks about the intersection between climate change and fires, in addition to explaining how they work.

“Unless you have an increase in precipitation with a warming climate the fuels will be drier. Dried fuels means it’s easier for fires to start and spread and we’ve just published [data] recently that suggests with the future climate, because of drier fuels and because of the weather conditions, fires are going to become more intense.

“And that may be hard to believe for folks in your areas who saw just incredibly intense fires this year, which is why I am saying this is consistent with climate change.”

Even the wet spring contributed to the worse fire conditions.

“You just need a week to 10 days of warm, dry, windy weather and you’re ready to burn. In fact the wet winter made things a little bit worse, because in your valleys where it is grass and sage and things like that, the wet winter means increased grass and vegetation growth then you get the hot dry summer and it all dies and it burns like stink because theres more of it.

“It burns more intensely and it’s difficult to put out and intensity is really important for fire management because if it gets intense then [turns into] flame, it becomes unsafe to have fire fighters on the front line when it’s that hot.”

Talking with researchers, fire experts, firefighters and even heading to the Australian outback where aboriginal populations use fire to their advantage, Eisen looks to share the science behind why things burn the way they do.

“One of the things we are trying to do is explain why wildfire behaves the way it does because even though fire is such a fundamental force of nature, even scientists will tell you there is still so much we don’t understand about it.”

In one portion of the documentary, Eisen talks with fire safety consultant Alan Westhaver about why some residences in Fort McMurray burned, while the next door neighbour’s survived. Westhaver also provides simple tips on how to fireproof your house.

In another portion, she goes to a forest lab in Montana where researchers are trying to understand the physics of how fire spreads by simulating fire in the lab.

“We filmed a number of experiments that explain why does fire spread horizontally if hot air rises, why does it go faster uphill, why do pine needles burn when they are alive because they contain moisture,” says Eisen.

“We wanted to look at some of the counter intuitive or surprising features of fire.”

She also films during a training session with firefighters who fight residential fires, who say that those fires are getting tougher to fight.

Eisen hopes that by the end of the documentary, viewers will have a better understanding of fire.

“I hope that people take away that we are not helpless victims that by understanding the science and urging governments and your local community to take steps to mitigate fire risk we can play an active role in protecting ourselves.”

The documentary will premier on CBC’s Nature of Things on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m.

“We use fire all the time, many of us are scared of fire but we have to learn to live with it because the problem is going to increase.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Lake City Secondary School principal Craig Munroe. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
OUR HOMETOWN: Lifelong learning

Lake City Secondary School principal Craig Munroe got his first teaching job in Williams Lake

Mayor Walt Cobb waves from atop a tractor as he turns onto Oliver Street in the Daybreak Rotary’s annual Stampede Parade. Patrick Davies photo.
Lack of funding, volunteers has Daybreak Rotary bowing out of Williams Lake Stampede parade

Club learned this week it won’t be receiving local government funding, for the second year in a row

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
30 new COVID-19 cases, five more deaths in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases to 7,271 since testing began

Williams Lake’s Brock Hoyer films a segment of the newly-released The Way Home in the city of Revelstoke. (Ryen Dunford photo)
Brock Hoyer stars in new snowbike film: The Way Home

The film is completely free and was released on YouTube on Jan. 22, 2021

The body of Kenneth Seymour Michell was discovered Jan. 14, 2021, behind a Williams Lake business a day after he was released by a judge on conditions. (Photo submitted)
Family looks for answers after Indigenous man dies by suicide following release from custody

System does not care about Indigenous peoples, says First Nations Leadership Council

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

“Support your city” reads a piece of graffiti outside the Ministry of Finance office. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Slew of anti-bylaw graffiti ‘unacceptable’ says Victoria mayor, police

Downtown businesses, bylaw office and Ministry of Finance vandalized Wednesday morning

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

Interior Health officially declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Creekside Landing in Vernon on Jan. 3, which was followed by the first death from the virus 10 days later. (Kaigo photo)
COVID outbreak over at Vernon care home

Creekside Landing cleared of coronavirus, despite additional death in last day

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Most Read