With 2017 having recently been declared as the worst wildfire season in B.C., surpassing the 1958 record, Port Alberni firefighters continue to assist in the Interior where fire has ravaged forests, homes and farms.
Rick Geddes, deputy fire chief with the Sproat Lake Volunteer Fire Department, has been based out of Clinton and surrounding areas since Tuesday, Aug. 8 fighting fires.
Since his arrival, Geddes said conditions have improved but initially temperatures were sitting around 35 degrees Celsius and heavy smoke made vision difficult.
“You could barely see 100 feet away, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Geddes said. “The majority of [the fire] is out, it’s just hot spots now and the odd flare up. We’ve had a few pretty significant flare ups in the last couple days but for the most part it’s burning into areas that’s already burned, so it can’t go anywhere for the most part.”
Geddes said when he first arrived there were close to 200 firefighters based in Clinton, a number that has since been cut down to about a dozen as conditions improve.
One of the four firetrucks that remain in Clinton is from Cherry Creek Volunteer Fire Department that Lucas Banton, Cherry Creek Fire Chief, brought in from Kelowna, where he had been helping.
Although based in Clinton, crews have been working extensively in surrounding lake towns—mainly Loon Lake and Pressy Lake.
“We’re working in a little town (Pressy Lake) where [fire] has wiped out probably three dozen homes,” Geddes said. “Fire came in there and wiped the place out…It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Geddes said just over a week ago, crews were working in Loon Lake, located northeast of Clinton, when the small fishing town “really went up in flames.”
“Several structures were lost down there,” he said. “It’s very weird, the fire behaviour, it’s random and will burn right up to a house and then skip it and wipe out the rest of the block. It’s the weirdest thing.”
Geddes said wind has a lot to do with the random fire behaviour.
“The fire is really wind driven because of the hills. Fire likes to go uphill, especially with wind,” he said.
Adding to the devastation, fire destroyed Loon Lake’s fire hall, but luckily, Geddes said fire crews saw it coming and managed to save their trucks.
“The community hall is right next to the fire hall and it was unscathed, so [fire crews] have been working out of the community hall,” Geddes said. “Their fire hall was a total loss but they’re able to still function.”
Fighting the fires, Geddes said, has been physically excruciating, and mentally devastating.
“Seeing the destruction, I’ve never seen anything like it,” He said. “I’ve [fought] dozens of fires before where houses were wrecked but not dozens of houses in one incident.”
He said it hasn’t been easy to see the aftermath, or cattle, deer and other animals running free with nowhere to go.
Although his experience in the Interior has been difficult at times, Geddes said overall his involvement will be unforgettable.
“I think most of all it’s been a great experience, especially seeing how other fire departments work and being able to work side by side with them,” he said. “We all train in different parts of the country, different parts of the world because there’s people from Australia here and United States and Alberta. We’re all speaking a common language and working towards a common goal, it’s a neat feeling.”
Geddes will bring back his gained fire knowledge to his crew at Sproat Lake.
Although surrounding towns have been heavily damaged by fire, Geddes said Clinton remains mainly unscathed.
“Where I’m sitting now, which is basically downtown Clinton, I’m looking around and you really can’t see any damage from the town,” he said. “You can see a few plumes of smoke off in the distance from fires that are still going but the town itself, nothing was lost, but right up to it, Cache Creek, got a good scare.”
Clinton’s evacuation order was lifted early this week.
“It was really neat to come [back to Clinton] and see people walking the streets and cars moving again and life sort of starting to get back to normal,” Geddes said. “It was the strangest thing when we came into town last Tuesday evening and nothing was open.”
Geddes said his expected arrival back home will be either this weekend (Aug. 19 or 20) or early next week, but that could change.