Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department fire chief Tom Moe was at work at the Chasm mill north of Clinton on Friday, July 7 when he found out about the wildfire sweeping through Ashcroft and heading toward Cache Creek.
“I found out about 1 p.m.,” he recalls, “but couldn’t come home right away because I car pool with three others. I got very antsy about getting home, and spoke with captain Bill Elliott. He said that two members were heading out in the crew cab to the Ashcroft Reserve, because we’d had a call for mutual aid from Ashcroft.”
Moe got back to the Cache Creek fire hall around 3:45 p.m. to find all the firefighters there. “’Chaos’ would be a mild word for it.” Moe drove to Ashcroft in the crew cab (Unit 1) to speak with Ashcroft fire chief Josh White, as communications were down and it was the only way to get in touch. He was stopped at the roadblock on Highway 97C by the Hillside Apartments, and asked by a policeman there if he could call his guys and go to Boston Flats, where there was a report of an older gentleman who was still there.
“I tried calling back to town, but my radio was too far away. I raced down to the Ashcroft fire hall and had a quick word with Josh [Ashcroft fire chief Josh White], and he said they were okay with their situation because by that time it was all on the north side of Ashcroft.”
Moe jumped in the truck again and headed to Boston Flats, where he saw Ashcroft’s Engine 3 at the top of the hill. “I stopped, and they said ‘We can’t get down there; it’s gone. There’s nothing we can do.’” [No lives were lost at Boston Flats.]
He headed back to Cache Creek. Near the Wastech site on Highway 1 there was so much smoke he could barely see, and flames right up to the side of the highway. By the time he got back to the hall, people had started evacuating the town, and firefighters and police officers were going door-to-door.
Moe had noticed fire on the Bonaparte Reserve on his way back from Ashcroft, and now could see fire approaching Cache Creek down Rattlesnake Hill on both sides of the highway. He got a call that the Bonaparte Reserve was in danger, so sent one of the trucks and three crew members there.
Aircraft had started dropping retardant on the hills around Cache Creek at that point. The fire reached as far as the top of the hill across from the fire hall on the other side of Highway 1, and the RCMP warned that they would have to evacuate. “I said ‘Not until it’s at the front door.’”
Reports were coming in that the fire had spread to Semlin Valley golf course and as far east as the mushroom plant, but the rumours were unfounded. When a call came in about fire at the back of a property on Collins Road, Engine 3 was sent there, and while outbuildings, trees, and vehicles were lost, firefighters managed to sprinkle the house and save it.
The fire had come up the bank near the Sage and Sands trailer park and settled in a wood pile. It had also caught hold of a pile of bark mulch at the public works yard, and was burning just 20 feet from the Village’s wastewater treatment plant. Unit 1, which carries 125 gallons of water, was able to keep the wood pile fire under control until a Cache Creek engine could get there, while the Ashcroft tender dealt with the bark mulch fire.
“I never thought we would lose Sage and Sands,” Moe says. “I was very optimistic, and have faith in my guys.”
Moe had earlier sent the old Cache Creek engine up to the Campbell Hill airport. “The house was on fire when we got there, and there was nothing we could do. There’s only one way out of there, so we turned around.”
Forestry crews arrived in the evening of July 7, so Moe left them and the Ashcroft firefighters at the works yard while the Cache Creek firefighters dealt with trees burning along the river, and Unit 1 put out spot fires along Collins Road.
Moe and another firefighter stayed at the hall all night, doing patrols, checking for spot fires, and keeping an eye on the wood pile, the works yard, and anywhere else they had had fires. He says the thermal imaging camera that the Royal Bank gave to the department in 2014, following a fire at the RBC branch in Cache Creek, was a big help.
“At the RBC fire we couldn’t find the seat of the fire,” says Moe. “Ashcroft showed up with their camera, and we found it right away.” Moe explains that the camera can find heat sources under the ground, such as smouldering tree stumps. “The camera got lots of use.”
Between July 7 and July 18—the day of the last graveyard shift—there were crews constantly at the hall, with the Cache Creek firefighters doing patrols through the area. The teams also spent time feeding animals, watering some plants, and looking for looters.
A plan was developed in conjunction with the Ashcroft fire department in case the fire came back down the side of Arrowstone toward the top of Stage Road. “We divided the town into zones, and did pre-planning in case things went south,” says Moe. One of their tools was a sprinkler protection unit loaned by the Office of the Fire Commissioner. The unit—which consists of 19 sprinklers at 50-foot intervals—started at Lopez Creek and was hooked into a hydrant on Stage Road. “We had the whole northeast corner covered.”
Moe says that everyone was in a very positive mood. “Everyone wanted to help. I had to tell some people to go home. We never really felt defeated.”
He offers thanks to the ladies who kept the firefighters fed, and to RCMP Sgt. Kathleen Thain: “She said ‘If you need anything, just ask.’” He also thanks the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the forestry crews.
“There are so many people to thank. Thank you to my crew and the Ashcroft crew. I’d trust them with my life any day of the week. I’d like to keep this working relationship going. It’s produced nothing but good things.”