Devastation, mentally challenging and physically demanding are the terms that come to mind when I reflect on this fire season in the Shuswap.
As the Deputy Chief for the Shuswap Fire Department, I wanted to share my story, having been the boots on the ground during the thick of things.
The Shuswap Fire Department is made up of two halls, one in Blind Bay next to Nico’s NurseryLand and the other in Sorrento. We have eight pieces of apparatus and 26 active members.
On Aug. 18, we received a call from the Deputy Regional Fire Chief asking for the Shuswap Fire Department to assist the Scotch Creek Fire Department (FD) in protecting the Scotch Creek bridge. We answered the call and responded with one fire engine and one water truck (tender).
Initially, the sprinklers set up on the Scotch Creek bridge were effective in keeping the structure wet and creating a humidity dome. However, the fire was creeping towards the bridge from either side of the road. To keep traffic flowing out of Scotch Creek, the SFD (Shuswap Fire Department) started knocking down the fire on either side of the road. Confident in the sprinkler protection and the work of Scotch Creek FD on the bridge, SFD moved down the road to secure safe passage along the straight stretch north of the Scotch Creek Transfer Station. We were able to buy time for approximately 40 vehicles to get out of Scotch Creek before the road became impassable with flames rolling over the road.
As we started to run out of water, we informed the Scotch Creek fire chief that we were headed for water and would return as soon as possible.
We returned to find ourselves in the middle of a firestorm.
Heavy smoke blacked out visibility, and a thunderous roar and falling embers made the hairs on your neck stand up. Feeling defeated and helpless, as though we were bringing a knife to a gun fight, we regrouped and met up with other resources from the Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) to help protect structures.
As the fire intensified around us, we regrouped once again in Tsútswecw Provincial Park.
Not knowing the state of the Squilax-Anglemont Road and Holding Road area, we started to make strategic plans for the worst-case scenario. We would have to hunker down and spray water above us like a huge water umbrella and hope for the best. That was when I asked my members to call their loved ones and let them know what was happening.
To make matters worse, at approximately 7:15 p.m. we looked south and watched the fire travel up Black Mountain in a matter of minutes, knowing full well it was headed for Shuswap FD jurisdiction.
At 8 p.m., there was a break in the wind, and we decided to make a run for Sorrento.
The thick smoke and raining embers made for a drive I will never forget. As we drove the straight stretch south, we saw the fire creeping its way along the ground. To our left, the fire circled the logging equipment left there in a rush from the Scotch Creek drainage. To our right was the now deserted BC Wildfire Service camp, that just hours earlier, was full of trailers, tents, trucks and crews. Decks of wood were consumed by fire along the south end of the airstrip and the gas station was engulfed in flames.
As we drove over the bridge back to the South Shuswap we were in disbelief, horrified that this could have happened so quickly.
At 10:20 p.m., we watched the fire make its way above Sorrento. We had a crew stay the night on Elson Road to continue monitoring the situation as it made its way down towards the nine structures.
On Aug. 19, at 4:30 a.m., I received the call that the fire had made its way close enough for the Shuswap FD to action the fires. Initially we responded with one engine, three tenders and our smaller mini pumper. As I arrived on site and sized up the extent of this fire line, it was clear we needed more resources to help protect these structures.
We called upon our neighboring fire departments for support. White Lake FD, Eagle Bay FD and Tappen FD answered the call and were a huge asset in protecting the nine structures located on Elson Road and Southshore Road.
The fire crawled to within feet of all nine structures simultaneously as we continued to fight off the resilient fire line. Wet guards were established, and hot spots were extinguished throughout the day.
Exhaustion began to overcome some firefighters. They were replaced with fresh firefighters from both Shuswap and neighboring departments. They would never admit defeat or to being tired. They were willing to work and do whatever it took to save these structures. As proud as that made me, I knew that as their leader and Chief, I had to make the call that was best for them and asked them to go home and rest.
At this time, CP Rail was gearing up their fire train in case the fire moved beyond our reach and abilities.
It is because of the quick actions, determination,and perseverance of all firefighters, that we did not lose any structures on the Southshore and Elson Road.
We continued to patrol and monitor the area 24-hours a day, extinguishing hot spots and filling local water tanks and pools. BC Wildfire Service arrived with a team to set up sprinkler protection on the structures that were in the direct line of the advancing fire. CP Rail worked on fires along the tracks, while Shuswap continued monitoring and extinguishing hot spots.
On Aug. 22, the fire continued to move east across the hillside out of the reach of the Shuswap FD’s capabilities. Around-the-clock shift work continued until Aug. 28, when fire behavior decreased, and all the close proximity hot spots were extinguished.
The Shuswap FD continued an afternoon monitoring shift to ensure nothing sparked up during the most active hours and to have immediate response if something did flare up.
On Aug. 30 at 12:30 a.m., we received a fire call from dispatch that there was a fire above Frederickson Road. This was a common occurrence, as people were coming back from being on Evacuation Order and would call in any fire on the hillside as a precaution.
I received another call from one of my members, who also worked on an Initial Attack crew for BC Wildfire Service, saying that the fire was getting close to the chicken farm.
At that point we had one engine, three tenders and a mini pumper rolling towards the fire next to the chicken farm on Frederickson Road. I arrived on scene first. To my surprise, BC Wildfire Service were on scene with two engines and one tender but were not spraying water on the encroaching fire.
My priority was to size up the scene to give us the best chance in protecting and saving this business.
An orange glow lit up the sky, the wind was blowing and the fire was moving quickly through the dry grass. The crews and apparatus arrived, and I directed them where to set up.
Just like in our training, the crew was set up and had water flowing in a matter of minutes.
In my experience, to be effective in fighting a fire it comes down to a simple equation: Big Fire = Big Water. We were dealing with a big fire. So, once again, I called for tenders and firefighter support from our neighboring departments: White Lake, Eagle Bay and Tappen fire departments. Once again, they answered the call. We had a total of seven tenders, three engines and our mini pumper unit tackling this blaze.
BC Wildfire Service had limited water and were relying on a narrow guard to stop the fire less than 20 feet from the structures. I do believe in burning off fuel in some circumstances but when the wind is blowing and throwing embers around, 20 feet is too close for comfort.
We had a sufficient water supply and were extinguishing fires that were within 50 feet of the entire farm. We also supplied BC Wildfire Service with water because of their insufficient supply. Once the fire around the farm was extinguished and a wet guard established, we packed up our hose, portable water tanks, truck and moved down the road to protect more structures from the relentless fire.
Once again, we set ourselves up for success. To use multiple 2.5-inch diameter hoses you need a lot of water. I called upon locals with large water trucks to assist us in supplying water. It’s not too often you see two 2.5-inch diameter hose lines fighting a wildland fire, but in the Shuswap it’s what we do. Big Fire = Big Water.
As the orange glow was replaced with a brighter daylight sky, the winds calmed and the thick smoke lifted.
We did not lose a single structure that night.
Food arrived shortly after, after an early morning call into the Timber Restaurant. The exhausted crews were able to take a quick bite and have a break.
During this time, we have also helped our brothers and sisters in the North Shuswap, putting out hot spots and giving them a much-needed break. We look out for one another and want to help each other out where we can. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families that have lost their homes and businesses.
Firefighting is a brother/sisterhood. We come together to help protect the community we live in.
Local businesses in our area stepped up and helped Shuswap FD out in a big way.
We would like to thank the following businesses for their support during these troubling times: Timber Shuswap Restaurant, Askew’s Foods, Home Restaurant, Prime Electric, Ranchers, Duffers Grill and Lounge, Spinnakers Cafe, Finz Bar & Grill, Atlas Asphalt, Sorrento Hardware, Bayside Marina and Grill and Blind Bay Village Grocer. It’s nice to make a phone call to the Grocer and have the diesel pumps open at 4:15 a.m. so we can continue doing what we do best. These businesses kept us fed and fueled. We couldn’t have done it without them.
We would also like to thank the community members that dropped off the generous donations of treats at the fire hall. Homemade cinnamon buns and cake to start a shift goes a long way.
We would also like to thank the Emergency Operations Centre for their continued support. As a small local fire department, we never felt alone.
Thank you to the employers who allowed the firefighters to leave and miss work to protect their community.
Thank you to our neighboring departments for answering the mutual-aid call and having our backs.
I asked a lot from the Shuswap members, long days and nights away from their loved ones in uncertain times. I could not ask for a better group of men and women who share the same passion as I do in protecting their community. I appreciate every one of them and can’t thank them enough for the hard work and dedication they have put in over these last couple weeks.
I would also like to thank my wife Rachel, for being patient and understanding during a most difficult time in her life.
If anyone is interested in joining our team at Shuswap Fire Department, we practice every Tuesday, 7 to 9 p.m. at Hall 2 next to Nico’s NurseryLand.
Ty Barrett is the Deputy Fire Chief with the Shuswap Fire Department