A single lightning strike on the Fly Hills July 29, 1998 ignited a firestorm and the largest evacuation in B.C. at the time.
“Flight From the Flames,” a new exhibition opening tonight at 7 at the R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum is sparking many memories.
Hear the helicopter whirring overhead, the radio messages advising residents how to get out of town or updating those remaining on the fire’s progress.
See the faces, uniforms and scenes that became so familiar over the course of the fire. Read the stories from those who fought the wildfire and those who lost their homes.
For many who lived through the wildfire that ravaged 6,400 hectares of forest and farmland, sleep is still a rare commodity when the forests are dry and the wind is high.
Items are still being gathered for the exhibition that will run for two years, says museum curator Deborah Chapman, who calls Observer photographer James Murray co-curator.
The idea for the exhibition came to Chapman, who has been at the museum for 20 years, as she mulled over what projects she could bring to life over the next decade.
“What do you want to cover? What’s important to the community?” she asked herself, pointing out she had no idea about what had been featured before her arrival. “I started the fire exhibition in 2010 and most of the work has been done on my own time as a labour of love.”
Chapman also credits the Observer, supporting the museum with all the old photos and negatives.
“They ‘gave’ me photojournalist James Murray to help select from the original images and work with me on the exhibit,” she says, noting the paper’s editorial staff won a Webster Award for coverage of the fire.
“His eye is perfect – he’s been editing me and I’ve been editing him. I don’t usually get that opportunity,” she says, noting images in the exhibit are only those taken by Murray.
Chapman laments the fact that the original award-winning, front-page photo of a helicopter hovering over Mt. Ida has gone missing. Gone too are original drawings by cartoonist Bob Muirhead, a vital piece of fire memorabilia that Chapman says went missing at his funeral.
Other contributors to the story were municipal governments and staff, the Ministry of Forests, Rapattack, the Army (Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry and 1 Combat Engineer Regiment), RCMP, area fire departments as well as volunteer firefighters from around B.C., Provincial Emergency Preparedness (PEP), members of the Shuswap Amateur Radio Club, Shuswap and Vernon Search and Rescue, Red Cross, Salvation Army and Mennonite Disaster Service, as well as many individuals.
“I wanted an exhibit that people could connect to; this was different for me because it was recent, still raw for people, so I had to be sensitive,” she says.
“Anyone who didn’t want to talk or have their stories included, I respected that. I had lots of unanswered phone calls.”
Chapman found satisfaction in being able to create a link with earlier history, going back to 1894 when Salmon Arm was ravaged by both fire and flood.
“Whatever wasn’t on fire was underwater,” observed resident Maude Turner in a story that appeared in a Kamloops newspaper.
“There was hardly anything about it here,” Chapman says, noting the wealth of information collected during and after 1998 wildfire.
Chapman hopes to get funding from Virtual Museums Canada to put “Flight From the Flames” online.
Another connection Haney Heritage Village has to the fire is the Queest Tower, now located in the village.
Former fire watcher Pam Oxley saw the fire ignite from the tower then located near Sicamous and knew immediately it was going to be a problem wildfire, says Chapman.
While this year’s Villains and Vittles Dinner Theatre production is called Fire Watch, Chapman says it is not about the 1998 fire, something that remains too raw for a number of people.
The story, with a humorous tone, is set in 1958, the worst fire season on record in B.C.
Opening night is July 3, with shows every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evening in July and August and a special matinee performance on Thursday, Aug. 22.
A home-cooked dinner is served at 6 p.m. from Marjorie’s Tea Room. Dessert follows the play with homemade rhubarb crisp and ice cream.
Reservations are a must. Tickets are $24 for adults, $21 for seniors and $14 for children under 13. For more information, call 250-832-5243.
R.J. Haney Heritage Village is located at 751 Hwy 97B next to the Salmon Arm Camping Resort.