AMY CARMICHAEL

VANCOUVER (CP) - No man-made weapon will stop them. Not an extra army of firefighters and experts, not machines or water bombs.

When fires get as big as the monstrous blazes tearing across British Columbia virtually all control is snatched out of human hands, says fire expert Steve Bachop. "Air tankers can drop fire retardant to try to slow the fire down, but they're so intense that it burns up before it hits the ground," he says.

And more firefighters would just add to the confusion on the fire line. The solution, Bachop says, is something all the PhD-certified scientists with the latest technology at their fingertips can only sit and wait for: rain, a solid week of it.

"There's nothing else that will help in conditions this dry and this hot."

Almost 30,000 Kelowna residents - about one third of the city's population - was forced to flee when the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, with flames higher than a 10-storey building, lunged into the city just over a week ago.

Earlier this month, almost 10,000 people were evacuated from communities north and east of Kamloops in the face of rampaging flames. The village of Louis Creek was all but destroyed, losing dozens of homes, businesses and a sawmill.

A deluge of the proportions needed to extinguish these extreme fires - which are burning in the root systems underground - isn't expected for months, says fire behaviour specialist Judi Beck.

She is worried that there won't be enough showers to rehydrate the ground before it freezes, meaning that next summer the B.C. Interior will again be at extreme risk.

After El Nino, back-to-back years of heat waves and lower than normal precipitation, Beck says it was obvious by June that the Interior was a "powder keg" that could blow up at the flick of a cigarette.

Bitter residents who lost homes in Kelowna have already are already threatening a lawsuit against the government for not doing enough to stop that fire from getting out of control.

But Beck says fire officials did what little they could to prepare.

"We put crews out early, burned off some of the fuel in the forest, that's all you can do," she says.

The ground is so dry - she couldn't find one day where more than 10 millimetres of rain had fallen since January - that when lightning bolts hit the forest floor they burn at an intensity that has shocked firefighters.

"Small fires, say 20 metres by 20 metres are taking us six, seven, even eight drops of fire retardant to corral them," says Bachop. "In a typical year without the drought conditions we see now, it would only take one drop from an air tanker."

Before crews could get on top of the blazes, which were sparking all over the province by the hundreds, wind was carrying flames to the tree tops and toward towns.

"It's out of control before we can do anything with it," Bachop says.

History shows firefighters have a poor track record under such conditions and sometimes the erratic blazes spawned by extreme fire conditions take lives.

Beck compares the Kelowna fires, where no one was hurt, to the 1994 South Canyon blaze in Colorado. Winds suddenly whipped the flames up 30 metres in the air and it expanded quickly killing 14 firefighters.

She says the primary objective has to be protecting human life, but Beck says the lack of progress is frustrating everyone on the fire line.

They are no match for a monster like the 200-square-kilometre Okanagan Mountain Park fire that swallowed up about 250 homes in Kelowna.

"It would take millions of litres water, not far off from a flood of rain to cool that down," Bachop says.

That's more water than would be safe or even feasible to drop.

"We've got people on the ground. Dropping that much water could break bones," says B.C. Fire Commissioner Rick Dumala. "Plus the pilots can't see where they're going in these fires. We've already lost three pilots."

Water bombers have described trees exploding in front of them in thick black smoke and columns of flames three times the height of the trees still standing.

With water proving powerless, crews are feverishly working on the ground to build guards, areas up to 150 kilometres wide where they burn off the brush down to the mineral soil, stopping the spread of the fire. From that point they shoot hoses to cool things down.

But the wind has been carrying embers far beyond them, onto rooftops. Suddenly crews can find themselves trapped between two walls of flames.

Beck says she hopes the severity of the Kelowna and Louis Creek disasters will push people to adopt some of the fire-prevention measures they could have taken.

"It's like telling people to prepare for an earthquake," she says. "It's not in their backyard and they have too many other day-to-day events they have to worry about."

In the interface environment, where wildfires meet communities, crews are encountering new challenges created by gardeners. Beck says bark mulch used in landscaping has proved very difficult to extinguish.

"Firefighters have to get down on their knees and dig water into it. These are hotspots that flare up and we have to go back every single day."

Bachop says many of the people who used fire-resistant materials to build homes in the area where threat of wild fire is ever-present, were spared.

"Looking in Kelowna, where you have a street with some houses still standing, most of those have metal or fire retardant roofs."

But when it comes down to it, all anyone can do right now is hope and wait for rain.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/31/2003 15:26 EST