A fire on a historic bridge was likely caused by humans. Here’s what we can do to prevent it from happening again

Ladner trestle bridge fire [Photo by malloryy_m/Instagram]

A fire that started on a historic trestle bridge near Hope, B.C., has kickstarted conversation around human-caused wildfires and how to prevent them.

The bridge, which was built in 1916, and became a recreational trail after its use as train route was phased out in the ’80s, caught fire on May 29. Witnesses have said the fire was caused by a cigarette thrown by three people they saw crossing the bridge that day.

Donna MacPherson, an information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre, says that officially, the cause of the fire is unknown, though it was likely caused by humans. “We can’t investigate it because [the bridge is] 200 feet up in the air, and we can’t really look at it,” she says. “We know it wasn’t lightning. We presume it was human-caused[…].”

While the bridge’s frame is made of steel, it has wooden crossmembers made of wood, which are what ignited, dropping sparks onto the trees down beneath, which also began to burn.

“As the trestle was burning, it was sprinkling sparks down into the forest, with about a 200 foot drop in between the top of the trestle and where the forest floor was,” MacPherson explains. “So we didn’t respond to the fire on the trestle itself, it was too unsafe for our people to go onto, so we fought the fire that was down below.”

An air tanker eventually came and sprayed fire retardant to prevent the fire from spreading, and as the weather cooled, the fire eventually died down both in the trees and on the bridge. A small patch of forest burned, as well as several of the crossbeams on the bridge.

You’ve probably been putting out campfires wrong — here’s how to have a fire safely

There is no catch-all for preventing human-caused fires, says MacPherson. However, there are a few causes that pop up repeatedly, and campfires are among the top culprits.

Macpherson notes that it important to ensure your fire is not underneath anything that could catch fire, and should make sure the area around the fire is “fuel-free” and cleared down to the mineral soil. She also notes that it’s important to stay near your fire, and to keep it small — “A campfire’s a half a metre by a half a metre in size. It’s not a big bonfire, it’s a small campfire.”

But above all, she says it is important to make sure you put out your fire completely, which takes a lot more effort than most people realize. “That’s the piece that I think people don’t realize, is how hard it is to put one of those campfires out when you’re done. A water-bottle full of water on it won’t do it. It takes a fair amount of work.”

It takes about eight liters of water to put out a small campfire. And rather than just dumping it, it’s important to stir the water into the ashes, ensuring they get fully doused.

“You need to apply water, stir it, apply water, stir it, apply water and stir it until it’s cold,” Macpherson said. “It has to be cold-cold-cold, not warmish-cold.”

If you don’t have water, you’ll need a shovel or tool to dig down to the sand and putting a heavy layer of earth onto the fire to smother it, ensuring it isn’t still burning underneath.

“A forest isn’t a playground”

Of course, there are other ways humans cause forest fires, including smoking cigarettes, as is suspected in the case of the trestle bridge blaze.

hand holding a cigarette
A carelessly discarded cigarette is believed to have led to the fire on the trestle bridge. [Photo by Irina Kostenich]

“[Smokers] have to be careful not to flick a fire off, a cigarette off into the forest,” says MacPherson, “and that’s a habitual act. People who smoke do that without thinking, so they’re going to have to get a new set of habits, which is carrying a bottle of water and dropping the cigarette in the water bottle when they walk.”

ATVs and motorcycles can also cause fires by driving over grass, which can catch fire as the mufflers throw off sparks.

Overall, the the best way to to protect the forest from fire is to treat it with respect and care, and to think about your actions.

“I think […] the biggest takeaway is a forest isn’t a playground. It’s not a stage or a backdrop. It’s a living entity,” says MacPherson.

“We have a responsibility as the Wildfire Service to respond to fires, but people have a responsibility not to start them.”

If you see a fire in progress, report it

While people can try to help control fires they come across in the wild, MacPherson says the best thing to do is to call B.C.’s wildfire hotline and report it.

“We like people to let us know first because we’ve got more equipment to be able to deal with this if we need to.”

But if, after reporting, you feel safe and have the equipment to try to douse the fire, you are encouraged to do so. “If people have equipment and water, and they can do something to slow the movement of the fire safely themselves, then of course that’s something that we do appreciate.”

The number to report a wildfire in B.C. is 1-800-663-5555, or *5555 on a cellphone. To report a fire in Ontario, call 310-FIRE (3473).

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