polo vw Forest fires come with human costs
The Silver Creek forest fire exploded in 1998, roaring down the Fly Hills, across the homes located in the valley, including Abby Leigh’s, and up Mount Ida overlooking Salmon Arm. The fire had been percolating quietly in the steep canyons of the Fly Hills for two weeks, inaccessible to ground crews and protected from the best efforts of aerial attacks with fire retardant and water.
That afternoon, the wind in Silver Creek topped 90 km/h. The telephone wires vibrated with a deep, ominous hum that occasionally rose to a howl. The fire sounded like a large, distant waterfall, a muscular and powerful movement, sucking air and crushing trees in its hot fury.
One resident finished packing up his truck with some valuable possessions. Before driving off, he stood by his truck and watched the relentless flames devour his neighbour’s barn less than 100 metres away.
By the end of the day, the smoke covered Salmon Arm and my wife and infant daughter had fled for the safety of Kelowna. A few days later, I met Abby Leigh, sitting on grass still green in places, hugging her knees pulled up to her chest. The 13 year old was sobbing inconsolably. Behind her, there was nothing left of the only home she had ever lived in except for rubble, but her tears were for her missing cat. Only area residents and the media were allowed into the burned out neighbourhood that day. With the last three frames left on the last roll of film I had, I took her picture. It summed up the fire’s destructive force and the human tragedy and loss.
We would meet again a week later. The Province had also taken her picture in front of her demolished house and, like our newspaper, run it on the front page.
It was not the first time I had been so close to a forest fire. In 1994, the Garnet fire near Penticton forced 10,000 residents to flee. One afternoon, more than a week after the fire started, intentionally set in the late afternoon by the son of a local firefighter, the winds suddenly picked up and doubled the size of the fire in a few hours, forcing fire crews on the hillside to literally drop their equipment and run for their lives. Before that fateful day, when fire crews felt confident they were within a day or two of containing the stubborn blaze, I got close.
As the helicopter dropped in, we all crouched to the ground and covered our heads. It emptied its water bucket onto the nearby flames and we felt a blast of scorching heat, followed by a thick, blinding plume of ash and smoke that rolled over us.
After about 30 seconds, we were all able to stand. The firefighters picked up their shovels and began shoveling dirt onto the small pockets of flames on the steep, tinder dry terrain on Carmi Mountain. I resumed taking pictures.
Nearly 20 homes were eventually destroyed in both the Penticton and Salmon Arm fires.
Abby Leigh will always be a reminder to me that while the flames look spectacular on TV, that’s the homes, livelihoods and memories of real people going up in smoke.
In Penticton, one of my work colleagues at the newspaper lost his home on Carmi Mountain but he was still thankful that it left his nearby shop, where he worked on his racing cars, untouched. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, however, when emergency personnel gave him and his family temporary lodging at a local inn not far from work.
It was called the Black Forest Motel.
Managing editor Neil Godbout
NOTE: To post a comment you must have an account with at least one of the following services: Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ You may then login using your account credentials for that service. If you do not already have an account you may register a new profile with Disqus by first clicking the “Post as” button and then the link: “Don’t have one? Register a new profile”.
The Prince George Citizen welcomes your opinions and comments. We do not allow personal attacks, offensive language or unsubstantiated allegations. We reserve the right to edit comments for length, style, legality and taste and reproduce them in print, electronic or otherwise. Comments that contain external links will not be permitted.