Residents of Belleisle area grateful to volunteers who battled out-of-control wildfire

Capt. Mike Sherwood, of the Belleisle Valley Fire Department, used a drone to help follow a fast-moving fire last week and to help direct firefighters battling the blaze on the ground.  (Submitted by BVFD - image credit)
Capt. Mike Sherwood, of the Belleisle Valley Fire Department, used a drone to help follow a fast-moving fire last week and to help direct firefighters battling the blaze on the ground. (Submitted by BVFD - image credit)

Around the same time a giant wildfire started near Saint Andrews on May 28, one began in the woods in the hills above Belleisle Bay, located roughly west of Hampton, north of Saint John.

In both fires, a local fire department of volunteers answered the call. Both departments dealt with similar conditions — a fire in the woods being driven by very strong winds toward people's homes.

When the call first came in around 1 p.m., Belleisle Valley Fire Department Capt. Mike Sherwood couldn't even see the smoke from across Belleisle Bay at his family's camp.

Within hours, however, heavy smoke was driven into the area by very strong winds, said Sherwood, forcing some people to leave that area on the opposite side of the bay.

Submitted by Mike Sherwood
Submitted by Mike Sherwood

Closer to the fire, homeowners were convinced it was right on top of them because of the way the smoke blew close to the ground and far out ahead of the fire.

"The smoke was being carried so far, so fast, that people thought the fire was in their backyard, when in fact it was still roughly three-quarters of a kilometre from many homes along the bay, up on top of the hill," said Sherwood.

WATCH | Drone gets close look to help officials fight fire:

The close call was enough for residents to want to express their gratitude for the volunteers who answer the calls in the community.

In a post on the community's social media page, Sherwood said they've received so many inquiries about how to make donations to the department that they've set up a new email address for direct deposits to the department.

He also said he's hoping to use those funds to buy a drone for the fire department since "more and more the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] is relying on local departments to fight the fires."

It was his personal drone that he used, and it sustained some damage because of the heat. He said he'd like to buy a drone equipped with thermal imaging, which means it wouldn't have to fly as close to identify hot spots.

Submitted by BVFD
Submitted by BVFD

He said the information provided by the drone was invaluable in directing firefighters and resources in the fire zone.

Sherwood said he was given clearance and approval by the Department of Natural Resources and Energy to use the drone to create a plan of attack because they weren't able to acquire any water bombers — otherwise, it's illegal to fly a drone in the area of a forest or wildfire.

With the help of the drone, Sherwood said they were "able to direct the crews who were lugging 500 feet of hose through the woods from the truck that was actually pumping the water."

The drone was able to direct those on the ground to the easiest route through the woods.

"On the ground, there could be a roadway 10 feet away from you, and you'd never see it. That drone gave us a birds-eye view and allowed us to fight that fire a lot easier."

Provincial resources during wildfires

The Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development "does not offer direct financial support, the department provides training to fire departments on an annual basis," according to the department when asked about funding for volunteer departments.

In an email, a spokesperson said expenses are covered when "assistance is required" from fire departments.

The message said the department can also "provide trained wildland firefighters as well as logistical, operation and planning resources" and aerial support.

"Emergency Measures Organization provides logistics related to evacuations and community support. We also would like to mention others agencies including the forest industry, N.B. Power, the Red Cross and all other groups who help provide assistance during these times."

From clear skies to thick smoke 

When Sherwood reached the fire department to gear up on the afternoon of May 28, the response was "pretty sparse," he said, which isn't unusual for a Sunday afternoon. Later that day, though, as smoke and word about the fire spread, they had 29 firefighters on the scene. They also had help from Norton and Wickham fire departments.

Sherwood said the fire started on Valley Road when a tree rubbed on the power lines because of the strong winds and resulted in "arcing" to the ground.

"By the time we headed out with the trucks, it was obvious that we had something big going on," said Sherwood.

Valley Road is located over the hill from Belleisle Bay, upriver from the ferry on the Kars side. Heavy winds pushed the smoke over the hill and across the bay to the southeast.

The fire itself burned in that direction for about three kilometres, toward homes and cottages along the bay.

But unlike the Stein Lake fire in Chamcook, a twist of fate and wind direction helped prevent disaster in Belleisle.

Submitted by BVFD
Submitted by BVFD

"In most cases you can say it always could have been worse, but Mother Nature helped us out in this one for sure," said Sherwood.

The winds turned about 180 degrees and drove the fire back along the same path it had already burned.

That, said Sherwood, is what prevented the situation from being a disaster. Without it being driven by the winds, firefighters were able to stop the fire from advancing further toward the bay and the structures along its shores.

Sherwood estimates the fire came to within three-quarters of a kilometre of the nearest home.

He said no homes were officially evacuated, although the residents of the house that was considered closest to the fire's path had packed a few things and left — with four family members joining the fire department's efforts to fight the blaze.

Having gotten lucky by the change of wind direction, Sherwood said the fire, although out of control, wasn't deemed serious enough to warrant diverting water bombers from the fire in the Saint Andrews area, which started around the same time.

Eventually the fire was brought under control, but it still wasn't declared officially "out" by Sunday night.

A grateful community responds 

Like the firefighters who worked around the clock to battle the out-of-control forest fire in Chamcook and Bocabec, the efforts of the Belleisle Valley Fire Department were immediately on the minds of Belleisle-area residents.

Sherwood said the local food truck cooked up 50 hamburgers while an across-the-road-neighbour from the fire station made 50 hotdogs.

Sherwood said they often receive donations from those who have been helped by the department. It's often used to buy new equipment or water for the firefighters, which can be significant.

Submmited by BVFD
Submmited by BVFD

"I have no idea how much water we drank that day, but it was in the hundreds of gallons. That all has to come from somewhere and that's typically what the donations are for."

The severity of this fire, however, seems to have hit residents close to home and the appreciation seems to be "deeper," said Sherwood.

"There was a lot of uncertainty with the way the wind was blowing because if you were running through the woods, I don't think you could have kept ahead of that fire," he said.

"Things were happening and changing that fast and that fluidly. So yes, people were scared and I think they're very appreciative that we were able to deal with that situation and stop it."

Lightening the load

Sherwood also hopes to buy forestry hoses for the department with any extra money donated by residents. Forestry hoses are smaller and lighter than regular hoses and make trekking through heavy terrain far from the trucks a lot easier on firefighters.

"That firefighter is going to last four or five times longer before he's completely and utterly exhausted," said Sherwood

"It's just like carrying a garden hose versus carrying about 50 pounds of rubber-wrapped firefighting hose."

With the way the climate is changing, Sherwood anticipates that fire departments will be dealing with more forest fires in the future.

"And the better equipped we are to deal with it, the faster that's going to be put out."