“It’s like no fire I’ve ever seen,” says Ashcroft Volunteer Fire Department (AVFD) fire chief Josh White, who has been a member of the AVFD since 1999, speaking of the Elephant Hill wildfire.
“Someone who works in Ashcroft left town in the afternoon [of July 7] and took some time-stamped pictures. One showed smoke plumes on the reservation. Another one taken 25 minutes later showed the fire was burning across from the Petro-Can in Cache Creek.”
White calculated that the distance along the path of the fire between the two spots was 12.3km, meaning the fire was travelling at one kilometre every two minutes.
White says that the fire was spotted south of Ashcroft in the late evening of Thursday, July 6, and he called it in. Members of the BC Wildfire Service arrived shortly after midnight, and White guided them down to the site in his SUV in 4-wheel drive. “It’s a rough road, and our firetrucks are not 4-wheel drive.”
White says it was a stationary fire that was not moving much at that time. Two attack teams from forestry were at the site, which White left around 1:15 a.m. “Next morning there wasn’t a lick of smoke, and I thought ‘Good job, forestry, knocking that down.’”
However, the fire caught hold in the late morning of July 7, fanned by sudden fierce winds, and the AVFD got a call shortly after 11:30 a.m. White describes what it was like when they arrived on the Reserve.
“Trying to set up fire hoses with a fire that was moving so fast was impossible. We stopped near Black Canyon Road and managed to get the caps off the hydrant; then I saw flames licking at the back tires of Rescue 1 and said ‘This is not a good place to be.’ We retreated to the mid-point of the reserve and managed to get hooked up to a hydrant before we had to retreat to the location of the Band office.”
White used the PA system to warn residents to evacuate, and split his crew into two divisions. “We began removing the fuel load—wood piles and other things stacked alongside houses—from around two residences. Those structures are still standing. But all the time we had on the reserve was to action those two properties. We had to stay out of forestry’s way [when they came in with retardant].” White adds that the Village of Ashcroft and the Ashcroft Ranch sent two pieces of equipment and operators each, to try to fight the blaze.
Then White received a call that structures at Bradner Farms, on the west side of Elephant Mountain, were catching fire. He dispatched Engine 3, with five crew members aboard, to the site, only to receive a call from dispatch a few minutes later.
“They said someone from the farm had called to say that refrigeration units and cooling tanks were exploding, that there were structure fires, the barn was fully engulfed, and not to send firefighters in.” However, not long before receiving that call, the repeater that transmits signals and allows the fire crews to stay in touch with each other failed; leaving White with no practical means of telling his crew to turn back.
“We lost the repeater at 13:34, and at 13:36 I heard about the electric explosions at Bradner.” White explains that while the firefighters still had radios that could communicate with each other, that method of communication was limited by distance and geography.
“It was a nightmare scenario,” he says. The firefighters on the reserve loaded into a vehicle and bombed down Highway 1 to try to catch up with Engine 3.
“It was like driving through hell. There was thick smoke, and fire at the side of the highway, and we nearly collided with an abandoned chip trailer.” When they cleared the smoke, they could see Engine 3 backing out of the road into Bradner. “Someone coming out had given a warning, and Captain Steve Aie made the wise decision not to go in.
“It was kind of emotional to see that truck and those people safe,” White continues. “I care about them like my family. And I told everyone to go back to Ashcroft; that was now our priority.”
White says there was no time, and no resources, to go down to Boston Flats to fight the fire, and that the lack of communication also played a part. He drove down to the trailer park some 10 minutes or so before fire engulfed it, and used the PA system to warn everyone out, but says he did not see anyone.
“There was nothing we could do. There was a wall of fire coming down Elephant Mountain, and it was a very dangerous place to be, with no hydrants.”
Back in Ashcroft, White divided his firefighters into two attack groups. In addition to the AVFD’s tender (water truck), there was also a tender supplied by the Inland Port. Bladders were deployed around the town, and the two tenders kept them—and the fire engines—at full status.
One crew patrolled Highway 97 to the brake check, while another crew stayed downtown, and Good Samaritans with radios were stationed at the cemetery on Railway Avenue, behind the Village office on Bancroft, and at the end of Third Street, watching for signs of the fire jumping the river.
“There was a challenging fire on Elephant Mountain that night [July 7], and I drove to Cache Creek that evening, where I saw Cache Creek fire chief Tom Moe and offered assistance to save Sage and Sands trailer park,” says White. “He said yes, and we sent the tender and an engine.
“Those Cache Creek firefighters saved their community,” he continues. “Forestry was there as well, and the three [agencies] worked together, but the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department was at the centre of it.”
After that, White says the department talked with Greg Hiltz (“Another hero”) of BC Hydro, who asked if the AVFD could protect the remaining Hydro poles between Ashcroft and the junction with Highway 1. “Every pole we lost meant we were without power that much longer.” One crew was dispatched to work on the poles, while the other did patrols and worked on hotspots. Each evening when fire duty ended, two firefighters were at the hall all night.
“We actioned hotspots over the next few days, and would go to Cache Creek to meet with them,” says White. “We came up with a defensive plan to protect Cache Creek.” White was stationed in Cache Creek for a few days, and would regularly check in at the fire hall in Ashcroft and update firefighters and those staffing the information centre.
He wants it noted that “We’re not out of the woods yet. People need to be vigilant. Fire is still very much all around us, so stay out of the back country.”
He adds that the AVFD had one call for service in June 2017, and has had 10 so far in July, with the Elephant Hill fire accounting for some 1,550 hours. “We’ll still give it our all [if there is another fire call], but we’re exhausted. Let’s be that extra bit careful.”
He notes that there has been much talk of what’s referred to as the “Bill Campbell days”, when the former fire chief would go around town with a truck making announcements over a bullhorn. “I remember Bill going around town in the old Ford rescue truck, telling people water restrictions were in effect.
“But never once during those times was there a fire. We had 20 minutes of down time on the afternoon of Friday, July 7, and we were trying to make an announcement [about water restrictions].”
White says there are a lot of people he wants to acknowledge. “Thank you to Heather Aie and Megan Marlow and all the people who kept us fed. Without them doing what they were doing, we couldn’t have functioned. And thank you to the Legion, for all the amazing meals they provided.
“Thank you once again to Greg Hiltz from BC Hydro for putting in those 16-hour days to get us our power back so soon. He’s also a firefighter [in Ashcroft], so did double duty. The Hydro crew was amazing, working through dinner. And the Telus team was another small army, working to get our communications back.
“A big thank you to the CCVFD for having our back at the beginning of this at the Ashcroft Reserve. You are our brothers and sisters, and we love you. And thanks to Ashcroft RCMP and the out of town members for keeping our communities safe; especially to a certain member of the Ashcroft detachment, who cut her holidays short to come back.
“Thank you to forestry for all they did and continue to do. You are our firefighting cousins, and an amazing crew. Thanks to BC Ambulance for having our back and checking on us, and to our spouses and families for putting up with us not being there for much of the month.
“And finally, to my crew: you are above and beyond my heroes. I couldn’t be prouder of them. They are a truly amazing group of people, and I’m blessed to have them. The community is blessed.”