Just over five years ago we moved from the big city to the desert. More specifically, from Richmond to Okanagan Falls. And while I try to live my life in love instead of fear, I did harbour two nagging and seemingly irrational fears at the time: wildfires and Lyme Disease.
Since it has become glaringly apparent that 2020 is going to be 2020 whether we like it or not, it was inevitable that at least one of those two fears would come to fruition during the course of the year.
So, with that in mind, please let me introduce the Christie Mountain wildfire.
During the early afternoon of August 28th, my sister called my husband to tell him that her husband had just texted her to say there was a wildfire in our area. Convoluted, I know, but stick with me here. Mark (my husband) looked out several windows and couldn’t see any such thing, so assured Susan (my sister) that all was well.
When he took the dogs out about 15 minutes later, he was totally shocked and more than just a little alarmed when he turned south and saw smoke billowing into the sky less than a half mile away.
Mark checked on the fire/smoke situation again about ½ hour later and when he saw how quickly it was spreading up the hill, he suggested we pack up our valuables.
Now it is possible that I rolled my eyes at his suggestion, thinking how he was being such a glass half empty kinda guy and I’m such a glass half full kinda girl. It’s also possible that my husband lives firmly grounded in reality while I live in a universe populated by brightly colored and highly entertaining unicorns.
And so, pack up we did. Photo albums, boxes of negatives, our computers, jewelry, clothes, important papers, shoes, medications and toiletries. Photo albums are surprisingly heavy, and as it was a hot, hot desert day, we were both a sweaty mess by the time we had our cars loaded up. Had we packed too little? Maybe. Did we have too much? Who’s to say at a time like that?
Needless to say, we kept a close eye on that stupid wildfire during the course of the afternoon. We had only just sat down to eat our veggie spring roll dinner when we saw a small vehicle filled with people in orange jump suits drive by. Oh, oh I thought: this doesn’t look good. Like, at all. A few moments later two people were at our front door to let us know that we were under immediate evacuation orders. Not pack up your stuff and leave at your leisure orders, but get out right now orders. People who were at work would not be able to come home to collect their things orders. They showed us the evacuation order, had a list of instructions, an Emergency Operations Centre for us to visit, numbers to call and several questions for us to answer. When they walked back up our ridiculously steep driveway they tied a pink ribbon to a bush to show that we had been taken care of. I couldn’t begin to tell you a word they said, as I was definitely in a fog by then.
And so it was that 319 homes were evacuated late one smoky afternoon in mid August. Apparently, some folk chose to ignore the evacuation order, which can cause no end of problems in and of itself. I always thought I’d be one of those absurdly stubborn people, but come to find out, we don’t have any idea what we’ll do until we are faced with real decision making in actual real time.
Believe it or not, we left our half uneaten food on the sitting room table as we scrambled to saddle up our dogs and obey the evacuation order. Thankfully, we were all packed and the only things missing from our vehicles were us and our pets. Let’s hear it for those who live firmly grounded in reality and have a great skill set in advance planning for emergency events.
I felt shell shocked as we backed out of the garage and told our beautiful home to be a good girl and wait for us. I assured her we’d be back as soon as we could. There were tears involved in that conversation and she seemed to understand what was required of her.
Fortunately for us, my sister and brother-in-law live in Summerland, about a 38 minute drive from us. Unfortunately for us all, they were expecting out of town company that afternoon; relatives who hadn’t visited for nearly three years. On top of everything else, I felt awful to be throwing a monkey wrench into their visit. Add to the mix the fact that we have two small nervous dogs and they have two large hyperactive dogs, and you have a very full house. Bedlam ensued.
On a human nature is truly weird note, we all watched Only the Brave that night. It seemed totally counterintuitive to watch such a sad, realistic and harrowing movie about an out of control wildfire. It also seemed strangely and completely fitting, given our circumstances. After all, nothing could end up worse than it did for the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Bless their socks.
Following a rain filled spring, the weather had been hot and sunny without a hint of rain, for over a month. You might imagine that spring rains will keep fires at a minimum, but in fact, it is the total opposite. All of that moisture, caused by all of those spring rains, brings about a lush undergrowth. Unfortunately that lush undergrowth, when dried out, makes for perfect tinder. Perfect fire conditions. And as such, the Christie Mountain wildfire had spread to 1,000 hectares and was completely out of control by 10:12 pm that night. 3,700 more properties in the southeast corner of Penticton were on evacuation alert. Water bombers and helicopters began their air assault shortly after the blaze was reported, but as the fire was burning over rocky mountainous terrain, ground crew access was beyond difficult. Twenty one structure protection personnel remained on the scene overnight, but despite their best efforts, one home was lost to the blaze.
That evacuation week was a long one. Every afternoon we drove south to sit across the lake from our house, whispering encouraging words to the entire subdivision and watching the action through a pair of borrowed binoculars. It was so scary to see our homes surrounded by smoke with fire burning so close by.
We saw little fires spark up right before our eyes as trees were ignited by passing embers. The Okanagan is blanketed in ponderosa pine, beautiful and majestic trees that love to sway in our ever present wind. When they catch fire, they practically explode into flame as they are so filled with pitch. We saw ground crew scrambling across rock faces doing whatever it is that ground crew do. We were shocked by how quickly the fire was spreading north, to Penticton. And to the south, towards Okanagan Falls, for that matter.
The wind grew stronger as the week progressed, forecasting 75k by Friday. Fortunately, those winds (blowing in from the south) held at 35k and to everyone’s relief, didn’t increase the fire’s ferocity. Given the heat and uncontrollable fire, the 200 firefighters working the area, 16 helicopters and six water tenders had enough on their plates. At no point during that week was the fire considered contained. It grew by leaps and bounds and hit 2,000 hectares by Friday afternoon. Forty firefighters worked through that Friday night alongside multiple fire departments and structure protection personnel.
The evacuation order was finally lifted early Tuesday afternoon, one week almost to the minute from when the blaze began. There was a lot of geotechnical work to do be done, once the fire had been sufficiently quelled, before we could all return home. Crews worked endlessly ensuring the safety of homes, retaining walls and driveways, as well as power, gas and water line infrastructure. Seventy five properties along two streets were exempt from immediately returning home as teams were still assessing geo-technical concerns in their area. The evacuation order was finally rescinded for those properties at 6:00 that evening, although those homes remained under evacuation alert.
We were surprised that there wasn’t a huge line up to get back up our mountain, but there were no end of personnel checking us in when we arrived at the turn off. A package of instructions were given to each returnee and the police asked to see our driver’s licenses to ensure that we actually belonged in the area.
I have never, ever been so glad to be able to go home. Our house was just as we left her, although now filled with a smoky odor. Our vegetarian spring rolls were still on the coffee table, although a little worse for wear since the last time we saw them. Our dogs were delighted to be back home, and slept nearly non-stop for two days, recovering from their own doggy trauma.
2020 has been a bad year for wasps and ants. Of course it is, right? We’ve had a bunch ant traps and wasp catcher thingies all over our property since the end of May. Clearly neither species does well in smoke, as they were pretty much all gone when we finally came home. One can’t help but wonder what other creatures die off under such conditions.
Interestingly enough, there was an Area Restriction Order on Heritage Hills for two weeks after we were allowed back into our homes. It remained an active worksite as the BC WildFire Service continued to conduct fire suppression activities in our area. Helicopters continually flew overhead as hot spots were being doused on a regular basis. There was one particular area, about a block away from us, that got no end of attention. We were most relieved when it fell off the hit list.
I ran into one of the fire crews just yesterday, and was so excited to be able to thank them (profusely) for their bravery and hard work. One of the guys said that the first night was the hardest. With smoke so thick you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you, they were exhausted by the end of their shift. He said that those who were doing building structure protection worked the hardest, and we are forever grateful. On a side note, the home that burnt to the ground was not on the tree line. There were houses and a street between it and the fire. The house beside it was less than 20 feet away and remained unscathed. Fire is a vicious and seemingly erratic entity.
The cause of the Christie Mountain wildfire has been listed as lightening. Interesting when you realize that there hadn’t been any lightening storms for weeks. That having been said, Mark (the husband) was outside watering shrubs the afternoon before when he heard a crack of thunder. He looked around in surprise as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. But for one, hovering just above Christie Mountain Lane. You know, where the fire first began. Was it possible then, that one stray bolt of lightening had started a smoldering fire that ignited 24 hours later?
There are many, many people to thank when all is said and done. Thank you to the brave firefighters who worked so hard, through unimaginable conditions, to quell the Christie Mountain Fire. And because of their bravery, saved our homes. Thank you to RDOS, the BC Wildfire Service, The City of Penticton, reporters for keeping us updated and photographers for covering the wildfires. A special thanks to Douglas Drouin who generously gave me permission to use his outstanding pictures of the fire. Thank you to Save-On-Foods and Real Canadian Superstore for their participation in the emergency voucher program. Thank you to the volunteers who worked tirelessly at the Emergency Operations Centre, giving out water bottles and helping us navigate through this crisis. And thank you especially, to Susan and Mark, my sister and brother-in-law, for putting us up and putting up with us. It takes a village.
This is the current view from our house. My heart goes out to all of those who have been displaced due to the wildfires currently raging up and down the west coast of the United States. To the brave firefighters and safety personnel trying to save towns and lives, to those who have lost their homes to fire and especially to the families who have lost loved ones. Sending love and light to you and yours.