Salmon Arm  

Firefighters battled wall of flame to save Sorrento

Fighting a wall of fire

It was a wall of fire advancing like an angry dragon.

The Bush Creek East wildfire began an aggressive run down Black Mountain in the early hours of Aug. 30 as it closed in on Sorrento.

"Thanks to a tremendous effort by four Columbia Shuswap Regional District fire departments, BC Wildfire Service and the CP Rail fire train, flames were held back before reaching any structures," the CSRD says in a recap of that dramatic night.

Tappen-Sunnybrae Fire Chief Mark Zaichkowsky was at the fire's incident command post on the night of Aug. 29, and had a clear view across Shuswap Lake.

Winds from an approaching cold front began picking up about 8 p.m. and grew increasingly gusty. While a wind event had been forecast, nobody expected Rank 4 and 5 fire behaviour.

"By 12:30, we saw a large trail of fire tracking toward Sorrento, and we knew where it was heading,” Zaichkowksy recalls.

He alerted CSRD Deputy Fire Chief Sean Coubrough and Shuswap Deputy Fire Chief Ty Barrett at 1:15 a.m.

"BC Wildfire raced out of the North Shuswap with a night task force equipped with three engines and one water tender," Coubrough says. The Shuswap, White Lake and Eagle Bay firehalls responded with four water tenders and four engines and were joined by structural firefighters from Tappen-Sunnybrae, who arrived with two tenders and an engine.

"We had 40-plus firefighters with local knowledge and experience," says Coubrough.

White Lake firefighter Sophie Randell recalls driving towards a wall of flame, her car with ember burns on its fenders.

"I rounded a curve and thought 'oh shit, this is not a small fire,'" she says. "Adrenaline was pumping, and it was eyes wide open."

CSRD firefighters immediately began spraying water to save a chicken farm near Frederickson Road.

Randell says working on constantly emerging hot spots at the edge of the forest was challenging.

"We were able to wet the area and create a bit of a humidity zone, reducing the threat to structures," says Coubrough. "We basically created a rainforest. You could feel the humidity increase."

Crews also battled flames heading towards power lines and were sent in to protect a home, shop and a mobile home that was close to the rapidly progressing fire.

The fire got into a large slash pile, sending an ember shower skyward and dangerously close to the mobile home.

Structural firefighters joined BCWS in attacking the wall of fire.

"Fires were spreading quickly at Rank 4 to 5," says Coubrough.

Unlike a typical fire, where 1.5-inch hoses are used, the firefighters were equipped with 2.5-inch hoses that are heavier but deliver 200 to 325 gallons of water as opposed to the smaller hose's 150 to 200 gallons per minute.

Large portable water tanks were set up at the Sorrento Firehall first, then Firehall 2 on the Trans-Canada Highway.

"There was no water in Sorrento the next day, but we didn't lose any properties," says Coubrough.

The wildfire service told him: "We would have been in trouble without you guys."

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