The unpredictability of forest fire was in full evidence in the West Kootenay last week, as wildfires threatened communities, then backed off a few days later.
On Wednesday night, the region was on the knife-edge of disaster, with winds whipping up fires in the south Arrow Lakes region and Slocan Valley.
Hundreds of residents between Fauquier, Edgewood, and Needles in the Arrow Lakes, and Appledale and Lemon Creek in the Slocan, were first put on evacuation alert, then ordered out of their homes.
The fires prompted officials to close Highway 6 between Edgewood and Vernon, and set up a pilot-car guided controlled zone for 10 kilometres on Hwy 6 south of the Village of Slocan. Ferry service was shut down at Needles. A Slocan Valley internet provider took down some equipment from a tower before fire destroyed it, so many people’s internet was down until it was safe to reinstall the components 24 hours later.
Emergency centres were organized to deal with evacuees, and people sent as far away as Castlegar and Kelowna for emergency support.
Then the winds died down, and by the weekend many residents were being allowed to return to their homes on the west shore of Arrow Lakes (Edgewood and area) and the Slocan Valley. However, dozens remain on evacuation order, and the ones who can return are still on evacuation alert.
The Province reopened the Needles ferry on Sunday, which had been closed to all but emergency traffic.
Crews used the pause in fire growth to build containment lines and try to redirect the flames away from homes and infrastructure.
While expressing guarded optimism about the situation on the fires, officials didn’t expect the change of luck to last: the region was expected to return to temperatures in the high 30s by early in the week.
And residents were growing used to having sore throats, burning eyes and shortness of breath, as the skies filled with smoke – some towns, like Castlegar, achieving the dubious distinction of having Canada’s worst air quality for several days.
Officials say none of these fires will be put out by human effort. They can only look to the sky, hope for a change in weather, and keep losses to a minimum.
Arrow Lakes Complex
Three large fires burning in the southern Arrow Lakes region are now being considered a single unit, for firefighting purposes.
The largest in the Arrow Lakes Complex is the monster Octopus Creek fire burning south of Fauquier. At 14,238 hectares (142 sq. km), firefighters have been dealing with aggressive fire behaviour that prompted evacuations and road closures. On the north flank, firefighters are attempting to shift the wildfire upslope into the alpine and away from the community of Fauquier.
Fire crews reached a temporary stalemate at Johnson Creek with the 5,981-hectare Michaud fire south of Edgewood, on the west shore of Arrow Lakes. As of press time, the fire has been less active due to lighter winds and heavy smoke in the area reducing temperatures slightly.
“That smoke, however, is impeding air support operations,” BC Wildfire Service said. Fire crews are establishing and reinforcing containment lines in priorities areas, which also include the north flank to limit the growth to the north-northwest. Officials say direct attack on the wildfire will also continue where possible.
Smoky conditions are also hampering attacks on the Renata Creek fire, a 1,970-hectare blaze that has crews building and reinforcing containment lines in priority areas.
By Monday, about 90 firefighters, three helicopters, and 34 pieces of heavy equipment were on the scene of the three fires. They are being directed under the authority of a 15-person Incident Management Team from Alberta, brought in to assist BC in firefighting efforts. At press time, the Michaud Creek (Edgewood area) evacuation order had been downgraded to an alert; however, the Octopus Creek evacuation orders are still in effect for people living in the Fauquier and Applegrove areas.
In the next valley east of Arrow Lakes, the Trozzo Creek fire gave a spectacular display of fire’s speed on Wednesday, with gusting winds driving the fire quickly in the rough, inaccessible mid-alpine on the Slocan Valley’s east side. Then the winds died down, and light westerlies kept the fire from moving downhill into the Lemon Creek drainage. Fire crews were able to continue with burnouts, fire suppression, and setting up machine guards and hose-lays along a forest service road.
Seventy-seven firefighters and 16 pieces of heavy equipment are working on the 4,389-hectare fire and on building a machine guard to the southwest of the fire, to protect the town of Winlaw should winds change again. But the break after Tuesday’s run has allowed fire managers to plan strategic action to control the fire and keep it moving to the east and north, away from the communities.
Fire, fire everywhere
While those fires command most of the attention and resources of fire crews, they are not the only ones burning in the Valley Voice readership area.
Among the other notables are the 77-hectare Kimbol Lake fire near Nakusp, which is listed as ‘being held’ by the Southeast Fire Centre. It’s not threatening any homes or infrastructure. The 980-hectare Mt. Ruppel fire is burning in the highlands east of Slocan, and is listed as out-of-control, though it’s not considered an interface fire.
Seven smaller fires (the largest is 100 hectares) burn along the south shore of Trout Lake and the far north end of Kootenay Lake, and scattered spot fires are being watched or held in the southern Arrow Lakes, north of New Denver (on Wilson Creek) and west of Fauquier.
The West Kootenay is only a small part of the larger fire picture, which is seeing record high temperatures fanning out-of-control wildfires from BC to Ontario, and deep into the US.
John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice