No one was injured in a fast-moving fire that destroyed two homes on Western Avenue in North Ashcroft.
The fire broke out at around 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 16. Ashcroft Fire Rescue and the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department were called to the scene and contained the blaze, which prompted the RCMP to evacuate properties on Brunswick Place which backed on to the site of the fire.
BC Hydro and Fortis were also on scene. BC Emergency Health Services personnel were at the site to treat any firefighters who suffered symptoms of heat stroke as they fought the flames in temperature that reached 35 C.
Ashcroft Fire Chief Josh White says that he knew the situation was serious from the moment the call came in from fire dispatch in Kamloops.
“I’ve known the dispatcher for years, and could tell from the tone of her voice that this was an ‘All crew get to the hall, you’re needed’ call. She said there was a structure fire on Western Avenue, and I knew this wasn’t a TELUS security false install going off, this was the real thing.
“I ran down the stairs, keys in hand, and as I drove down Railway I could see huge columns of smoke. I don’t even remember getting out of the car and going into the hall and getting into my gear.”
White says that a total of 21 firefighters from Ashcroft and Cache Creek responded to the call, and that he’s proud of their response time.
“It was seven minutes and 12 seconds from the time I acknowledged the page to arriving on scene. That’s a city response time. We were flying.”
He gives a huge shout-out to all the other bodies that responded, particularly the Ashcroft RCMP.
“When we got to the intersection of Government and Ranch there was an RCMP cruiser blocking the intersection and holding up traffic so we could go through without stopping, even though we hadn’t asked them to do that. It was precious seconds saved.”
White says there was too much smoke to allow him to do a 360 view of the scene when he arrived. “All I could see was heavy flames and smoke on both buildings, so I couldn’t tell what was going on in back of the buildings.”
The intense heat from the fire was also an issue, and White had the nearest miss he has ever had in his more than 20 years as a firefighter.
“I knew it was a bad situation, and then just after I got there a vehicle exploded, and something came flying at me at thigh height. It was a piece of metal about six inches in diameter, and it went whizzing by. If I’d been a few steps further forward I might have ended up in hospital.”
A neighbour told the Journal that she had gone outside to water her plants shortly after 5 p.m. and smelled smoke.
“I thought ‘Who is burning things in this weather?’ I looked to the right and saw smoke, so I went over to my neighbours’ to warn them.
“Their cedar trees were in full flames in the time it took to cross from my house. I ran over there and then all hell broke loose. I heard a lot of bangs; they were constant.”
She knocked on the neighbours’ window, and the couple were able to get out of the house safely. One neighbour said that the house — as well as the property next door to it — was “gone” within five minutes. Another neighbour noted that they heard “explosion after explosion”.
The owners of the second house were not home at the time of the fire. One of their three dogs was at another property when the fire broke out; the other two were located and taken to safety at a neighbouring house.
White says that crews were “aggressively” fighting the fire.
“We were using the deck gun that puts out a ton of volume. A big fire equals big water. Given the scale of that fire and how hot and intense it was burning, our 1.5-inch hoses don’t work as well. We needed to put a lot of wet stuff on the hot stuff, so we used the deck gun to knock down the heavy fire so we could get in with handlines and challenge the fire up close and personal.”
While White has yet to determine the radiant heat of the fire, he says that a car a good 20 to 30 feet away from it had its back end melted by the heat.
“A house across the street has melting damage, and it’s a good 50 feet from the frontage of that house to the fire. That’s how hot it was; intensely, incredibly hot.”
Embers were fanned by a heavy wind and spread to nearby properties, with homeowners using garden hoses to damp down the embers. The cedar hedge of a house directly across from the fire was damaged, and a telephone pole outside one of the homes caught fire, but firefighters were able to prevent the fire spreading to neighbouring properties.
White does not mince words when explaining what made the fire so destructive, noting that there was a row of cedars between the two homes. “When we arrived, most of the green of the cedars had burned off, but the damage from them had already taken off.
“I have nothing good to say about cedars. I understand the privacy aspect, and sometimes I get this vibe of ‘It won’t happen to me,’ but it’s not the first time I’ve seen this in Ashcroft.
“Cedar trees have a huge impact [on fires]. The Kamloops fire department is trying to start a push to have them banned in Kamloops, and it’s my dream to see that in Ashcroft. They’re a dangerous plant to have around your property and there are safer alternatives, leafy species that don’t burn like a cedar. I’d like to see something from the village where existing cedars would be grandfathered but you can’t plant new ones.
“It’s a thing that needs to happen. We’re seeing a lot of property damage from these plants. And cedars plus vinyl siding is double trouble. Use hardie board, and if you have to have cedars keep them a minimum of 20 feet from your house.”
White says that the cause of the fire is under investigation, but that arson is not suspected at this time. He adds that the fire department is looking for any pictures or film footage taken at any time during the event, from drones, cameras, or recording devices. Anyone who has any video or still images is asked to contact Ashcroft Fire Rescue.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District’s Emergency Support Services team is assisting the couple who were at home at the time of the fire, and who have found accommodation in Ashcroft. Attempts are being made to contact the owners of the other home.
White extends his condolences to both the families who lost their homes.
“It’s a tragic loss, and I really wish we could have done more. I know the community will rally around these families and support them in any way they can. It’s what makes Ashcroft so great: people are there for one another.
“A huge shout-out to the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department and to my firefighters, who did a bang-up job, and to the paramedics who looked after the firefighters with heat stress. Thanks to the dispatchers, and to the public for keeping their distance and allowing us to do our job; that was really important. And thanks to my sister Heather for supplying us with burgers. Someone always steps forward.”