Some backcountry users in B.C. are setting trees on fire for fun – CBC.ca

The RCMP detachment in Trail, B.C., is investigating a rash of ‘Kootenay candles’ at Red Mountain Resort in Rossland. The term refers to the practice of lighting old, dead trees on fire in the middle of winter, often using sap or sapwood to start the blaze.

kootenay candle

A ‘Kootenay candle’ photographed in B.C.’s backcountry. Kootenay candle blazes regularly consume entire trees and tower 20 metres into the air, becoming visible from afar. (Mason Denis)

The RCMP detachment in Trail, B.C., is investigating a rash of “Kootenay candles” at Red Mountain Resort in nearby Rossland. 

The term “Kootenay candle” has come to refer to the practice of lighting old, dead trees on fire in the middle of winter, often using sap or sapwood to start the blaze.

Because dead, dry wood is primarily used, blazes regularly consume entire trees and tower 20 metres into the air, and can be seen from vast distances. 

Most commonly done in the backcountry, the act has become a small part of outdoor recreation culture in the Kootenay region of British Columbia.

Sgt. Mike Wicentowich with the Trail RCMP says he’s alarmed by the number of Kootenay candle reports his detachment is receiving. 

“These have been seen on a fairly frequent basis on Red Mountain … as well as in a lot of other places within the Kootenays,” he said.

“It sounds like it’s actually a fairly regular occurrence.”

kootenay candle

Lighting Kootenay candles has become a small part of outdoor recreation culture in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. (Mason Denis)

Disrupting ecosystems

Wicentowich says wildlife relies on dead trees for habitat, and setting them ablaze unnecessarily disrupts ecosystems. 

The Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue adds that setting fire to dead trees in the winter can cause wildfires in the spring and summer. 

“If it gets hot enough and long enough, fire can travel into the root system … Yes, it can do that,” said Glen Gallamore, the fire rescue’s deputy chief. 

Gallamore says fire can travel underground and remain active during the winter months, re-emerging once again in the spring or summer when drier conditions present themselves.  

He also says he’s seen this type of fire break out, but that they’re uncommon.

‘Like a really loud whooshing sound’

Experienced Kootenay backcountry users say Kootenay candles have been part of the region’s culture for a long time. 

“People have been doing that for time immemorial here,” said Tyler Bradley, a snowboarder from Hills, B.C., who runs the Kootenay Assembly of Backcountry Snowboarders Facebook page.

Bradley says he has seen Kootenay candles every year since he first moved to the region 16 years ago. 

He says Kootenay candles can get rid of dead standing wood while the risk of creating large wildfires is low, but he disapproves of the practice because a friend once lit a Kootenay candle while he was nearby, burning several holes in his Gore-Tex jacket. 

“I thought an avalanche had ripped out. When these things catch it just sounds like a really loud whooshing sound,” he said.

Bradley urges backcountry users to avoid lighting trees on fire unless in an emergency situation. 

“There’s very seldom a practical reason for doing it.”

Kootenay candles are not unique to the Kootenays — they occur elsewhere in North America, where people congregate in the backcountry, although not always known by the same name. 

Wicentowich says the individuals found responsible for Kootenay candles at Red Mountain Resort could face criminal mischief charges, fines, and a ban from the resort.

He asks anyone with relevant information to contact the Trail RCMP.