Remembering 1998

Walking to my car from the office yesterday, I thought about that experiment where people cook an egg on the pavement

Walking to my car from the office yesterday, I thought about that experiment where people cook an egg on the pavement.

Getting in the car was torture, and I gingerly placed my hands on the steering wheel. The wind was blowing the hot air around, but it was doing nothing to cool things down. Instead, from the parking lot at the Salmar, I could see, smell and taste the smoke in the skies from the direction of the Fly Hills.

I know my mind was not the only one that turned to memories of the Wildfire of 1998, when a lightning strike ignited a blaze that burned a large swath of Silver Creek, took out homes and barns, spread up to Mount Ida – which still bears the scars of the blaze – and prompted what was, at that time, the largest evacuation in B.C.’s history. (A fire in Kelowna some years later, knocked us off the pedestal for that dubious title.)

I will never forget that day, when the wind was whipping and our photographer James Murray was out in Silver Creek. He borrowed someone’s phone (a landline, I think) to call the office to say the fire was increasing and he was running out of film.

So I loaded up a grocery bag with film canisters and headed out towards Salmon River Road. I was supposed to meet him at the evacuation checkpoint, but once there, he was nowhere to be found. Everyone was driving out, but here I was driving in. My only company was a pair of fire trucks, which quickly outdistanced me. Ashes were falling and the smoke was thick.

I pulled my car to the side of the road, wondering what to do. And I watched as the fire jumped the road from the Fly Hills side to begin to ignite Mount Ida.

It was strangely beautiful and compelling, the orange flames licking up the base of a tree, rushing to the top in another instant, sending sparks high into the heated air. It was also chilling, like a bucket of ice water had been poured down the back of my neck.

Suddenly, it was eerily still. There was no one around but the wind whipping my hair. And this fire was beyond control. It was time to head for safety.

I whipped my car around and sped back towards Salmon Arm. By this time the evacuation zone had rapidly expanded and when I stopped at the checkpoint at Reid’s Corner, I did the best I could do. Using electrical tape, I wrapped the bag of film around the stop sign and taped it securely, hoping that at some point, I would be able to contact James and he could pick it up.

When I got back to the office, I told people the fire had jumped to Mount Ida. Many didn’t believe me at first. But I knew what I saw and I knew it was bad.

Yesterday brought it back, although a quick call to the office let me know it was not Fly Hills again, but this time a blaze near Bolean Lake. Close enough to be sure, but not the same level of threat to Salmon Arm as it was that fateful day in 1998.

It also reminded me of the brave and dedicated people who went to work fighting that blaze in searing heat and challenging terrain. My thoughts turn to them now, as fire crews fight to gain control of this latest blaze. Thank you for your service.


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