White Rock firefighters reflect on wildfire experience

Teams deployed to help in B.C.’s Interior

When it comes to having an impact on stemming the devastation of the wildfires raging in B.C.’s Interior, White Rock firefighters say they are taking comfort “in the small wins.”

Such as preventing the spread of flames that wiped out one property owner’s shed, charred the land and burned into a corner of their nearby home. Managing to find food for the chickens of another resident who was also ordered to evacuate. Digging trenches. Helping clean a grocery store.

“You try to minimize the heartache for the people that are there,” firefighter Evan Bird said Monday, a week after returning from a seven-day deployment that put him, Capt. Doug Smith and firefighter Matt Meneghin on the shores of Takysie Lake.

The trio were deployed Aug. 14, the day before the province declared a state of emergency. At that time, more than 560 wildfires were burning across B.C., 29 evacuation orders were in place and approximately 19,000 people were on evacuation alert.

Sent to Fort St. James, the White Rock crew, with nearly 40 years of combined firefighting experience between them, spent their first night on an arena floor before being redeployed the following morning to Burns Lake, then Takysie Lake – which is part of the Verdun fire currently estimated at 46,063 hectares.

Stationed about 50 kilometres south of Burns Lake – southwest of the 910-square-kilometre Shovel Lake fire – Bird and Smith described a landscape of both chaos and beauty.

Surrounded by smoke and fire, they spotted all manner of wildlife, including bears and a lynx, and experienced unexpected appreciation from residents who couldn’t bear to leave their homes, but randomly handed them chocolate bars at the roadside – a small gesture to make sure the crew knew they were grateful.

READ MORE: B.C. residents defy evacuation orders as wildfires burn

The area is “so nice,” Bird, 42, said, “but there’s so much chaos and devastation going on at the same time. It’s a never-ending battle.”

The pair shared photos that illustrated how dramatically conditions changed in the space of a day – from relatively clear skies over the lake, to a blanket of smoke all-but-obscuring the view, to flames clearly visible along the opposite shoreline.

“It doesn’t matter where you look, something’s on fire,” said Smith, 50, a 20-year veteran of the White Rock hall. “There’s no front, there’s no back…”

Signs posted by those forced to flee appeal for firefighters to “please save our house, it’s all we have.”

“If that’s gone, they have nothing,” Bird said. “(You) pour yourself into helping them keep as much as they can.”

Both men hope to return.

White Rock fire Chief Phil Lemire sent another crew to help this past Sunday, and said weather will play a significant role in the ongoing firefighting effort. The department’s compressed-air foam truck has also been deployed.

BC Wildfire Service officials said Monday that rain and cooler temperatures reduced the risk of wildfires in the province’s northeast, and Environment Canada has forecast showers in Prince George later this week.

Smith and Bird know they haven’t had a game-changing impact.

“You’re putting your heart and soul into something which is very, very small,” Smith said.

Erin Catherall, an information officer for BCWS’ Babine Complex, said everyone who helps is “absolutely” making a difference.

“They’ve been wonderful,” she said of the crews.

“We’re trained in wildland fire, but to have the expertise of the structural crews that are coming out there, assessing properties, mobilizing sprinkler systems, it’s been hugely helpful for our efforts out in Northern B.C. right now.

“All of us working together as a team is what is needed.”

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White Rock Fire Department’s Capt. Doug Smith (left) and firefighter Evan Bird were among crew members deployed to help fight the Interior wildfires. The pair, along with firefighter Matt Meneghin, spent seven days in the Burns Lake area. (Tracy Holmes photo)

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