ZYTARUK: We’ve been horrible neighbours to Delta’s Burns Bog

Watching this latest fire burn, I couldn’t help but think of the abuse this bog has endured since people laid siege to it.

An aerial shot of the fire in Delta's Burns Bog that began Sunday.

Burns Bog may well be the oldest living thing on earth. Indeed, if you follow a frond of sphagnum moss down to its base, roughly six metres or so, this will give you an idea of just how old it is considering the moss grows by only two millimetres each year.

Our association with this superb urban wilderness, considering the size of it, has along that ponderous timeline been not much more than a blink of an eye. Twenty-seven centimetres or so would be a generous account.

North Delta, and the rest of Greater Vancouver, is of course blessed with the fresh air the bog’s trees provide. They call it the Lungs of the Lower Mainland. We gaze upon it, from our hill, and are taken by its beauty. It’s our birthright; our local connection in this increasingly congested and frustrating world to things once pure and primordial.

Watching this latest fire burn, I couldn’t help but think of the abuse this bog has endured since people laid siege to it.

“The poor animals,” my son remarked, as we contemplated the rising smoke from the safety of North’s Delta’s escarpment.

The verdict’s still out on what caused the 78-hectare, or 193-acre, fire, at least at this time of writing, but I’m going to stick my neck out and bet that people had something to do with it. If that’s not the case, I will be pleasantly surprised.

By 1880, most of Delta’s land had been pre-empted, but the bog still remained relatively undefiled. In the decades that have followed, by any standard, the bog has been badly used.

In humanity’s brief dalliance with this miracle of Mother Nature we have done regrettable things, carving large chunks out of it for fleeting profit, using its peat in the production of bombs, burning it…

One of the bog’s first labels was Lorne Estate, as it was owned by the Marquis de Lorne, who was the governor general of Canada in 1878.

In 1905, Dominic Burns, of Burns Meats, bought it for $26,000 thinking he’d set up a ranch and school, but found the land incompatible to that end.

During the Second World War, two peat mining operations were opened in Burns Bog – one on its east side in 1942 and the other on its west side in 1944. The U.S. military needed peat to refine magnesium for bombs which were used to reduce the German city of Dresden to a firestorm.

After the war, peat extraction continued to 1984. By the 1960s there were about 1,500 people working in the bog every day, and shifts ran 24 hours a day. You can still see the scars.

I remember as a kid hiking way into the bog and, not relishing the long walk back, trying to “get caught” by the peat workers who, following a stern finger-wagging, would give me a ride out atop one of their bog machines.

Even decades ago, it was estimated the bog was losing about an acre a day by human hand.

I wonder where that number stands today.

Every few years in the 1990s, a major proposal would be floated to develop the land into a racetrack, seaport or amusement park, and each time, the proposal was met with strong opposition from conservationists and local residents.

In 2004, the federal, provincial and municipal governments, along with the Greater Vancouver Regional District, ponied up $73 million to buy 2,018 hectares, or 5,045 acres, of the bog for conservation. The remaining 182 hectares, or 455 acres, was kept by MSW Dallas, a development firm out of Toronto and Texas.

Meanwhile, the bog is under siege by industrial parks to the west and north, a sprawling townhouse development proposal to the east, the dump to the south, and of course highways running both hither and yon.

To add insult to injury, let’s chuck in a major fire every once in a while.

I’ve seen three major fires, as a reporter. The plume from the July 1996 fire, from faraway locations, looked like a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb detonation. That particular fire gobbled 170 hectares, or 420 acres of forest, and presumably copious wildlife.

It started when a smoker dropped a lit cigarette butt while walking on a bark mulch access road off Highway 91. He and his buddy doused it with water and thought they’d put it out. They didn’t.

The fire of September 2005 was also a monster, with dark blood-red flames stabbing into the black smoke above. Trees exploded – it looked like hell, especially at night. This one gobbled 200 hectares, or 495 acres.

Firefighters, police and the B.C. Forest Service concluded the fire started close to the 6100-block of 104th Street and, though they admitted they might never know for sure, suspected it was started by a discarded cigarette or a spark from an all-terrain vehicle.

In other words, people.

Yes, we have been a bad neighbour to Burns Bog. Inconsiderate, loutish, unworthy. Hopefully we will learn to co-exist with it before we entirely destroy it. What an unforgivable, shameful thing that would be.

The bog deserves better.

As the lady sang, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Tom Zytaruk is a staff writer with the Now. Email him at tom.zytaruk@thenownewspaper.com

SEE MORE: Burns Bog fire 50 per cent contained, at 78 hectares [with PHOTOS, VIDEO]