The 1998 Silver Creek wildfire scorched an impression of itself into the minds of all who were around to witness the destructive fury of the blaze.
Former Observer photographer James Murray and fire warden Jake Jacobson were among those at the frontline during the battle against the inferno that came dangerously close to enveloping Salmon Arm. 2018 is the 20th anniversary of the fire, and the pair shared their stories and photographs during the Flight From the Flames presentation at the Okanagan Regional Library in Salmon Arm Aug. 11.
Among the stories shared were anecdotes of neighbours helping neighbours, of total strangers putting their lives on the line to extinguish the blaze, and little idiosyncracies of the behind-the-scenes effort that will never leave their memories.
For example, Murray spoke of residents trying to feed the hungry firefighters and Canadian Forces personnel, making a massive heap of sandwiches to distribute among them. A gracious gesture, but one that ultimately went to waste when they were told that without a food safety permit they couldn’t give out the much-needed food, so it was all tossed in the dumpster.
“Their expressions…, they were dumfounded,” Murray recalls of the firefighters. “They would have given anything for one of those sandwiches.”
Jacobson recounted one of the most dramatic scenes of the wildfire, where the inferno ran almost two kilometres up the slopes of Mount Ida in less than a half-hour.
“That is why I tell all our firefighters, unless you think you can run two kilometres up-slope in less than 19 minutes… never fight in front of the fire,” Jacobson said.
Murray, who won several awards for his photography covering the 1998 wildfire, noted that between the dramatic scenes of flames covering the mountainside and smoke billowing miles into the air, there were personal moments of grief and loss that never made it onto film.
“The people in these pictures truly did save the community… but people will never know the photographs I didn’t take,” he said. “I felt I had to be respectful of people’s grief.”
Another memory which both Jacobson and Murray said stood out to them was the eerie silence that descended over the city after the evacuation, which was punctuated by the sounds of the fires and the intense winds generated during the blaze.
“You could hear a pin drop in the town,” Murray said.
“There was a different sound to the wind, not blowing through the trees but more like a humming in your head,” Jacobson adds. “To this day when I hear the wind on a hot, dry day I struggle to sleep.”
In a humorous confession, Murray noted he “was never fond of helicopters,” a feeling which was exacerbated by his frequent flights to take aerial photos of the fires.
“I kept feeling I was just going to slide right out,” he added with a laugh.
Above all, both presenters and spectators alike professed a gratitude to the firefighters, Canadian Forces personnel and volunteers who worked tirelessly to save the city. Several members of the audience also expressed their gratitude for the SPCA members and other volunteers who rescued their pets and reunited them after the blaze.