A report of a smoky smell brought fire trucks to a waterside property near the end of Beddis Road on Monday, May 29, with more than a dozen firefighters working for hours to contain a previously extinguished fire that had re-ignited.
Seven trucks, 14 firefighters, 1,500 gallons of water and “a lot of digging” ended the creeping grass fire, which ultimately burned a 30- to 40-square-foot area, according to Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue (SSIFR) Assistant Chief Mitchell Sherrin, who said the call from a concerned neighbour came in around 2:30 p.m.
Sherrin said investigators believed the source of the blaze was likely a campfire that, despite appearances, had not been fully extinguished and had been “simmering” — burning beneath the ground surface — for about a week.
“Somebody had attempted to extinguish it,” said Sherrin. “But one thing that’s really important for people to understand is that fire can go underground, especially if you’re burning in an area that’s kind of rocky.”
Small gaps between dirt and rocks beneath the surface can hold pockets of air, roots and dust — just enough fuel and oxygen for the fire to keep alight.
“And that’s what it looked like it had done,” said Sherrin. “It had slowly burned quite deep underground, in amongst the roots of some trees. And then, you know, with a little bit more warmth and a little bit more wind, it broke out and started to spread into a grass fire.”
Firefighters worked until 6 p.m. digging up a large area around the grass fire to ensure all the burning roots beneath were fully extinguished. Sherrin said while these root fires were startling, they were not entirely uncommon; he recalled a fire on Salt Spring that had sprung from a supposedly extinguished winter burn pile. That fire had “overwintered” underground, he said, and rekindled several months later with the arrival of warmer spring weather.
SSIFR recently announced conditions had necessitated a shift to the “high” fire danger level on-island, and restrictions in place since May 18 have banned most burning across the region.
Campfires are still allowed for now — with a free permit, which can be obtained at saltspringfire.com — but extra vigilance is key, according to Sherrin.
“The grass fire was obviously serious and concerning for us, particularly now that we’re into the high fire risk,” said Sherrin. “Fire can start and spread pretty easily right now, so people need to be mindful.”
Sherrin said the first thing anyone planning a campfire should do is select the right site for it — being especially careful to burn on a non-combustible surface, and away from anywhere there might be roots.
“If you can see a canopy of trees above you, that means there’s going to be roots underneath,” said Sherrin. “Make sure you’re not burning on tree roots or on thick dust — that soft, springy ground — because fire can definitely go underground, especially if it gets hot enough.”
“And,” he added, “make sure it’s fully extinguished before you leave.”