More Manitobans have been sent to British Columbia to help fight with the devastating forest fires devouring the province's wilderness.

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This article was published 8/8/2009 (4300 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A wildfire burns on Terrace Mountain north of Kelowna, B.C., in the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 4, 2009.

DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

A wildfire burns on Terrace Mountain north of Kelowna, B.C., in the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 4, 2009.

More Manitobans have been sent to British Columbia to help fight with the devastating forest fires devouring the province's wilderness.

An incident management team set off for B.C. on Thursday, said Marc Mousseau, the national duty officer for the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

The team, whose members are trained to manage the different aspects of a forest fire response, will likely be put in charge of one particular fire and may oversee firefighters from another province, Mousseau explained.

Manitoba Conservation's fire program has sent 80 firefighters to B.C. along with dozens of pumps and relay tanks.

Mousseau said the 40 firefighters who left Manitoba on July 25 are due back in the province early this week for a rest.

The other 40 firefighters were sent out on Aug. 2, and will remain in B.C. until later in the month.

Blair McTavish, director of Manitoba Conservation's regional operations division, said provinces share the burden of forest firefighting.

"No one agency can handle a severe situation," he said.

Forest firefighters are only allowed to battle the blazes for 14 day before being required to take a break, Mousseau said, though that time limit may be extended to allow for travel time.

Fatigue is the main reason for the 14-day limit, he explained. "The last thing you want is tired people on the fire line."

The B.C. terrain can be radically different for out-of-province firefighters, Mousseau added.

Steep mountain slopes, dead-dry trees and the threat of being bitten by black widow spiders are what an Ontario firefighter says he'll remember most about his 19 days in the B.C. wilderness fighting forest fires.

Mike Kitney, 25, an Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources forest ranger, said he is returning to his Dryden, Ont., base Saturday with a new appreciation for firefighting work.

"The areas we were working were anywhere from 80-to 90-per-cent slope, and working in 40-degree temperatures. It was definitely something we had to get used to," he said.

Kitney is one of about 600 firefighters from Ontario who joined Manitoban firefighters in battling the blazes that have forced the evacuation of thousands of people in British Columbia, including entire communities.

They were joined on the fire front by firefighters from Nova Scotia, Quebec, and British Columbia. Firefighters from Australia and New Zealand also arrived late last week.

Critics say the influx of firefighting help is part of a predictable pattern in B.C., where unusually hot temperatures and dry conditions have combined to turn forests littered with trees dead from the pine beetle infestation into infernos.

It doesn't have to be that way, they say.

Prof. Stephen Pyne of Arizona State University, who has studied forest fires in countries around the world and in Canada specifically, said Canada is more focused on the emergency response.

"Fire management is a part of land management, and this is where, if I can say candidly, Canada has not kept pace with the more advanced fire countries," Pyne said.

Canada has done a good job of the dramatic -- put out the fire, protect the people.

But the more mundane work of preventing the fire in the first place hasn't been a high enough priority, he said.

In 2003, about 50,000 people were forced to evacuate in Kelowna and communities north of Kamloops because of fires that razed more than 200 homes and a lumber mill.

A report by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon on the devastating 2003 B.C. fire season urged fire fuels be cleared from around forest communities.

But B.C.'s First Nations Forestry Council said that didn't happen.

It blames Ottawa and the B.C. government for the extent of the current forest fire damage, saying both governments didn't do enough to clear out the tinder-dry, beetle-killed forests.

Norm Macdonald, the B.C. Opposition's forests critic, said the B.C. government improved firefighter training and communications with fire-threatened communities following the 2003 fires.

But he said the government hasn't done the recommended cleanup work necessary to prevent forest fires.

"The recommendations that Filmon put forward about making sure that fuel management for perimeters around built-up areas simply weren't done," he said.

The B.C. government disagrees, saying it has acted on Filmon's recommendations, including clearing the brush and deadwood from 349 square kilometres, almost half involving forests attacked by the pine beetle.

Kitney saw firsthand what happens to the areas that weren't cleared.

He said hot temperatures and dead trees created volatile forest fire conditions.

"You'll see those beetle-kill trees burn a lot faster," he said. "We've seen some pretty high fire behaviours."

 

-- The Canadian Press, with files from Arielle Godbout and Kevin Rollason