4. Summer of fire

The worst of B.C.'s 2017 wildfires were hundreds of miles away from Vernon but choking smoke from the Cariboo drifted down from the north reducing air quality to 'high risk' some days.

While the smoke kept many tourists away, a line of evacuees snaked into the city after Kamloops couldn't hold anymore. In one week, Vernon's Emergency Social Services registered 881 evacuees from the Cariboo region.

The North Okanagan escaped lightly in terms of wildfires, with the BC Wildfire Service and local fire departments instantly jumping into action to ensure they did not grow out of control.

While a July 15th fire in Okanagan Centre destroyed eight homes, only one was lost to the north, in Monte Creek, which suffered seven small wildfires in late July.

Others included:

  • Aug. 10, an interface fire above Highway 97A in Spallumcheen that was battled and conquered in a day by volunteer fire departments, aircraft and the forest ministry firefighters.
  • Aug. 29, a forest fire near Dixon Dam Road in the BX where a resident was credited with averting a major event after he smashed through a gate with his tractor and fought the fire with a water tank.

Even though it wasn't that busy in the region, volunteer firefighters stretched themselves thin across the province, with many spending two week stints protecting structures from the raging Cariboo fires before heading home for a break and then returning to the fire lines.

“The first lightning strike came on July 6th and hit 100 Mile House. That was it,” said Bill Wacey, BX/Swan Lake fire chief and structure protection coordinator for Emergency Management BC. “The last crew I brought home was September 21st.”

Structural protection units came from BX/Swan Lake, Armstrong/Spallumcheen, Big White and Lake Country fire departments, working massive fires named Tatla Lake, Anaheim, Nazko Valley, Elephant Hill and Hanceville.

“The Hanceville fire was the biggest of them all,” said Wacey, adding that fire numbers and names changed about four times over the summer as they spread. “It started out as the Riske Creek fire.”

All-in-all, Wacey was running 18 structural protection crews with 29 trailers, 72 engines and 48 tenders “that we utilized for the entire seven-week period.”

As well, tender units were deployed by Armstrong/Spallumcheen, Lake Country, Enderby and Lumby fire departments.

“Coldstream had an engine crew at 150 Mile House for almost two weeks.”

Wacey himself worked out of the EMBC's Kamloops office for part of the week and then headed back to act as fire chief for the rest.

He has high praise for the extraordinary efforts made by the fire crews from all over the province who worked 12-hour shifts in heat and smoke to save homes and businesses in the Cariboo.

“The amount of saves they did was spectacular. They were putting out spot fires where the main bulk of the fires gone through.”

Wacey said some structures were lost as the wind changed and the fire roared back into those areas but all in all “hundreds and hundreds of structures were saved.”

As far as the future, Wacey warned that B.C. will see more of this violent fire behaviour.

“The climate is changing along the entire west coast of the province and more and more of the forest is drying out.”

He said a training program is being put together that will run from Jan. - Mar. 2018 in order to bring more structural protection crews into the fold "so we're not playing catch up."

"We're seeing changes and we're going to see more.”   

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