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The Burning of Kemano


From Heaven to Hell

November 2000

Written by Derrick Harvey, Captain/Training Officer, Otter Point Vol. Fire Dept.

In the December issue of Canadian Geographic, an article describes the idyllic lifestyle that residents of Kemano B.C. lived for many years. A very isolated, small and self supporting community that was born out of need to service and maintain one of the world's largest engineering feats.

Kemano existed solely to supply human power to fill the needs of servicing the hydroelectric station that supplies electricity to the Alcan Aluminum smelter in Kitimat and the Eurocan Pulp Mill. It also sells its surplus electricity into the North American electrical grid. Built entirely inside a mountain to withstand a nuclear attack, its massive turbines crank out electricity overseen up to this year by the residents of the little town nearby.

But this is the era of modernization, downsizing, amalgamation, electronics and computers. Alcan saw that in its future, it needed to eliminate big sources of expenditure to maintain its position in the world Aluminum market. Unfortunately, Kemano cost a lot of money to maintain and run. It had its own water system, schools, shops, bowling alley, administration features and staff. Isolated as it is, it required a stout ship to supply the goods necessary to maintain life, as we know it. Eventually it dawned on people that the powerhouse could be operated with a small transient crew and from Kitimat by automation. The decision was made to shut down the town of Kemano.

Heaven was going out of the lives of the residents. But as the saying goes, whenever a door shuts, a window opens and the BC fire commissioners office and Alcan saw an opportunity to train BC's firefighters by allowing a systematic burning down of the town. Firefighters from all over B.C. have now registered for an opportunity to go into Kemano and burn down the houses and other facilities and gain valuable training that has almost never been made available before.

All firefighters know that "live burn" training is very valuable in understanding the science of fire suppression and extinguishment. It's all well and good to study books and to practice the methods on a regular basis, but unless you get to use the learning, it becomes somewhat dull and boring. Any opportunity to do well supervised and controlled live burns is welcomed by all firefighters to allow the honing of skills so that when they need to use those skills in a real situation, some of the surprises are not so traumatic.

Recently members of the Otter Point Volunteer Fire Department returned from a 5 day experience in Kemano and have come back full of energy, excitement, and stories about what they learned and how they accomplished the learning. Chief Scott Hemphill, Deputy Chief Jarvis Seabrook and firefighters Brad Gollmer and Brent Ainey traveled to Kitimat via Hawk Air and were picked up at the airport in Terrace by the Alcan bus. They had a day of orientation that took in how the following days were going to unfold and were given very clear instruction in the safety practices that would be adhered to.

Over the next 4 days, the members were transported to Kemano by ship and established in the bunkhouse. Planning then began on what type of fires were the kind that they wanted to learn about and the introduction of other firefighters from Hornby and Denman Island who were there as well. Small fires, bedroom fires, carport fires, basement fires, attic fires…. The instructors and mentors, all members of local fire departments in Kitimat, Terrace, and Thornhill set all types of scenarios. The emphasis was not on actually putting "the wet stuff on the red stuff" but rather on the "management" of fire suppression. Incident command, strategies and tactics were all mapped out to the point where the repetition started to become second nature.

There are no stories of "near misses" or " close calls". The purpose of burning Kemano is to achieve a greater level of awareness in participants of the necessity to approach fires in a cool, calm calculated manner using established concepts and strategies and adapting tactics as the situation reveals itself. Learning better ways to apply standard procedures ranks high at Kemano. The Otter Point members were thrilled to have participated in what is a once in a lifetime opportunity to burn down a whole town…. With a real purpose.

Fire fighters participating in the Kemano burn experience were also faced with an emotional dilemma to deal with. A lot of the ex-residents are still coping with the sadness and disappointment of having to leave what many considered to be "the" idyllic lifestyle in the world. Dealing with this type of challenge only helps the firefighters to deal with similar situations at home, when they are handling family members and homeowners facing tragedy in their own homes.

As a result of the experiences gained, Otter Point Fire Department had reserved more spaces the following spring, so that as many members as possible can have actual live burn conditions placed upon them. As one of our members put it " Only by going to Kemano and participating can you really know what its like to turn heaven into hell".

If you are an ex-resident of Kemano and are living with the sadness that comes with the destruction of old homes and communities, know this…the experience that the old town of Kemano provided for young firefighters in this province is beyond calculation. It is worth the sadness. Thank you Kemano.