Long-time forester George Benwell has published his memoirs of his 25 years as part of the B.C. Forest Service.
Benwell’s history in forestry begins in the early-50s when he joined his brother for a summer in Bella Coola. His brother had just started with the Forest Service and Benwell got a job working for a logging company.
A few years later, in 1955, after an unfruitful few years at university, Benwell followed his brothers footsteps. He remained in the service until 1979, when he left after being passed over for a district manager position.
The book begins with a family history and tales from Benwell’s youth getting in and out of trouble around Nelson. It sets the stage for the meat of the book, which relates a series of adventures and anecdotes from his 25 years with the Forest Service. His early years were spent timber cruising. On one cruise he and his partner spent 15 days in the bush — five more than expected. When they emerged tired and hungry on a Saturday they were told a search party would have been sent out on Monday if they were still at large.
Some of the most intense stories involve firefighting, particularly those about the particularly harsh summer of 1967, when Benwell was the ranger in charge of the Lardeau district. With minimal resources, Benwell and his team fought a series of blazes that threatened entire valleys. There was no Wildfire Management Branch with fully trained crews back then; instead they used local logging crews and enlisted any capable men they could to fight fires.
There’s stories of search and rescue, wildlife encounters and investigating rogue loggers. He talks about raising a family in a remote community. Benwell spent almost 10 years in Lardeau before being transferred to Revelstoke in 1972. Most of the stories are from Benwell’s earlier years in the forest service and they make it feel very much like pioneer times. As the memoirs shifts to Revelstoke, the stories dry up.
The book has the feel of a grandfather telling stories to his grandchildren. There’s a definite style of, “This is how we did it back in my day.” The writing is open and a little rough, but it reflects Benwell’s personality.
25/100th can be bought at Grizzly Books or by contacting Benwell at 250-837-2464.
A Q&A with George Benwell about life and the forest service
Alex Cooper: What made you want to write this book?
George Benwell: The reason I wrote it is I was encouraged by a few fellows that I knew to write something. The Centennial Committee did a very good job in organizing, but of course they were sponsored by the government and as a result it had to be politically correct. A lot of the experiences we had in the Forest Service didn’t lend themselves to being politically correct. There was a lot of work that was done within the framework of what we were supposed to, but we did things off to the side that were not entirely legal but seemed expedient to get things done.”
Can you give an example?
An example was creating that phoney fire to get lights in the ranger station. The light plant was driving us crazy. We had AM radio, we had to keep on for communications, and the static would drive us crazy because we had fluorescent lights in the station. There was no funding available, or if you applied for funding you’d have to wait until you were grey in the beard, so that’s when I established that phoney fire and paid off the two people (an electrician and store owner) with discharge cheques. The (ranger) supervisor came in and asked where the lights came from. I said, ‘Les, please don’t ask me.’ And he didn’t.
Some of the stories that were colourful, and there are a great number of stories that are never going to be told that are extremely colourful. Experiences that other guys went through. These were my experiences, but many of the fellows had better experiences than I had, and those stories are going to be lost and that’s part of the colour of the time. That’s really a shame, because it was politically correct.”
Reading your book, it feels like there was a big transition from pioneer times to office work. Is that so?
It’s such a drastic change today. I kind of feel for the guys who are going through it now. There’s so much of an emphasis on safety, which is important, but you have to have some risk when you do a job. There’s so much liability now, and we didn’t have those issues. I’m very pleased I grew up in that time when we did things by instinct or what we thought was right and didn’t worry about liability or some of this other stuff. Some of the safety issues like that one timber cruise that we did. We were supposed to be out for 10 days. We stayed out for 15 and we came out on a Saturday, they said if we didn’t show up by Monday, they would have sent out a search party. Now, two hours overdue and they get panic stricken. It’s just different time.
What did you enjoy most about being part of forest service then?
One of the things was the freedom within your own district. Particularly at Lardeau. It was a rural community, you had over a million acres in the district and you were free to go in that district anywhere you wanted at any time. You controlled whatever you did. You’d fly in a helicopter, you’d go on trail bikes, you’d go on river boats, speed boats, you’d have four wheel drive trucks to go wherever you wanted. It was a wonderful time.
You mention how young you were when you got your first ranger district, younger than a lot of the people who worked under you.
I was the youngest ranger in Nelson for quite a few years. When I went to the ranger meetings, I sat and listened to them. They went through the wars and I was a neophyte, so I listened.
At what point did you feel you belonged and could speak up?
Probably after I went through the bad fire season of 1967 and I thought I was gaining a a little bit of experience. Probably after four or five years I felt I had a little bit more to say.
Speaking of that big fire season, can you talk about fighting fires then versus what they do now, because you seem to have some opinions there.
I think what we accomplished in those days with the resources that we had… In ‘67 we had one helicopter. We had to be extremely careful how we programmed our flying because we could not afford to make stupid trips. We had one pilot, we had to keep him busy but not starting doing stupid stuff. Now, you get a fire and they’ll have five or six machines.
This is dangerous ground. In those days we used a lot of logging crews. They didn’t want to fight fires, they wanted to work. When we took them on a fire, they wanted to get the fire out and get back to work. That doesn’t apply now. This is dangerous ground, I know, but there’s not the incentive to extinguish fires now than there was in those days. We also used pickup crews. Some of the fellas we picked up were good, some of them were not so good… It was quite common in those days. Fellows would drift through, say they were looking for work. You would assess what his capabilities might be and send him out. A lot of those fellas were excellent. We also had a complement of local fire wardens who were fully as competent in fire control as our regular staff.
We used to do a lot of broadcast slash burning after areas were logged. They don’t slash burn anymore. We have a lot of areas that have been logged where the slash is there. They planted through it, but the slash is there. There’s a lot of residue on the ground, and that’s why there’s a lot of these bigger fires.
Also, they’re not getting on the fires quickly enough. There’s too much procrastination about getting an early start, getting on them and jumping on them fast. They won’t say that, but I think it’s fairly evident from what I’ve seen subsequent from our days. We wanted to get on fires quickly.
Another incentive in our days is we didn’t get overtime until about 1968. We got 40 hours off for heavy fires — five days. You didn’t want to get big fires that would bind you up forever. You wanted to get them out so you could enjoy some days off. There was one year, ‘58, another chap and I in Golden were assistant rangers. We worked 400 hours of overtime alone that summer, and for that we got 40 hours off. It was a condition of the job we accepted, but it was just a different world.
It did strike me that most stories were from 15 years. Is that because you started spending more time behind a desk?
Lardeau being a rural district you were much more field oriented. When I came to Revelstoke as ranger, there was more meetings. It was a different community. There was sawmills you would interact with and have meetings over different issues. Lardeau was a log supply district. It was much more a field-oriented district. Revelstoke was fine, but it was different.
What was the bulk of your time spent doing in Revelstoke?
I had a larger staff to look after. There was more involvement in certain aspects of the industry. In Lardeau there was a lot more field inspections. One of the differences is in Lardeau we interacted a lot on search and rescues with the RCMP. We didn’t do that in Revelstoke, because there was RCMP here and all that stuff. In rural communities you were often the first responder. The nearest RCMP was in Kaslo. If someone came to the station — they normally came to you first — then you reacted if you could. Here, you were more into interfacing with the licensees like Downie Street and Joe Kozek and Bell Pole.
The staff here was larger so you were a little bit more office inclined here. Not totally, but a little bit more, whereas in Lardeau, you were much more field oriented, which I liked.
Did you have regrets about leaving the forest service?
I had for a while. I was really pensive for the first year, but after I left I was pleased that I got out when I did. And of course the opportunity with woodlot licenses, because Gordon Edwards and I had that private property near Three Valley, we thought we had an excellent chance at getting a woodlot. That was one of the factors why I thought about getting out. I’ve been very happy with that, because this is our 30th year with the woodlot. Having the woodlot, you’re back in a field-oriented situation, because my son (George Jr.) and I still log together.
Whereas the forest service tended to go more towards a lot of meetings, and I was only superficially interested in meetings. I think meetings sometimes are a pain in the ass. Get out there, get the work done and don’t worry about all that.
Someone once told me the dream of most foresters is to run a community forest or woodlot.
A lot of the fellas still say that. Professional foresters very much wish they had woodlots, because then you can practice what you want within the proper parameters. You do have the option of selectively logging a stand. It’s just a hands-on situation — much preferred.
What’s the first change you would make to the forest service if you were appointed Minister?
I would reorganize the forest service back into the ranger system and get rangers out into the field in these small communities, where they’re in front of problems, not in an audit situation. Now what happens if something is going wrong out there and the licensee doesn’t get audited, or the compliance & enforcement guys aren’t available, then bad things happen. In the old ranger district system, they were close to what was going on in the community and they were much more active in the community.
I would also take a look at privatizing some of our forest land. I know they’re very proud of the fact BC is 95 per cent crown land, but I maybe wonder that shouldn’t be changed a little bit. They think Sweden is so wonderful, and they have small land owners there, whereas here 95 per cent of the province is crown-owned, and the big companies have too much influence.
Also, I would take a very close look at wildfire management in the province and incorporate this organization back into the ranger districts where it belongs as part of an integrated forest management approach.