BC Wildfire Service crew members burn off fuel near the South Spencer Road fire in Lytton.

BC Wildfire Service crew members burn off fuel near the South Spencer Road fire in Lytton.

On the ground with Lytton fire crews as they battle the South Spencer Road fire

Rain helped to suppress the blaze, but dozens of crew members on the ground still had a battle on their hands.

The South Spencer Road wildfire in Lytton has been big news since it ballooned from 12 hectares to more than 500 in the span of three days; so I expect there to be several news people in Lytton for a media tour arranged by BC Wildfire Services on Saturday, September 3.

The thick pall of choking smoke that hung over the town has largely dissipated; as I get close to Lytton the only obvious signs of the fire are several columns of smoke snaking lazily upward on the west side of the river, grey against the deep green of the trees. When I arrive at the meeting point I am surprised that the only other media person there is Bruce Claggett, an affable longtime reporter who is currently with News1130 out of Vancouver. It is clear that the South Spencer Road fire is no longer on the news radar; reporters have moved on.

We meet with Max Birkner and Jason Robertson of Wildfire Services, who give us an outline of what we’re going to see. Our route will take us past several of the houses that were under evacuation order, and even though there was no damage to any structures, and the evacuation order has been rescinded, we’re asked not to photograph any buildings, out of respect for the residents.

We take the ferry across the Fraser and bump our way to the staging area that is our destination. At one point a black bear cub bursts onto the road, runs ahead of us for a few yards, and then disappears back into the undergrowth. Just above the staging area where we park there is a burnt-out, long-abandoned apple orchard, and Robertson—a local fire warden, as well as a councillor for Lytton First Nations—says that bears had been bedding down in the orchard prior to the fire, attracted by the easy pickings. I wonder briefly what they think of being displaced so suddenly, and where they have gone to.

Bears have fled the scorched remnants of an orchard. Photo by Barbara Roden

Claggett and I don hardhats and, after a safety briefing, skirt round the orchard and climb up to where an access road runs under power lines. Several crew members are using drip torches to burn off foliage beside the road; not to create a firebreak, we’re told (the road is a natural firebreak), but to burn unnecessary fuel between the guard and the fire’s edge, says Alicia Rhodenizer, who has been with Wildfire Services for four years.

She has taken a break from dousing the flames with a hose that is pumping water from a nearby irrigation ditch, and says that crews had finished a burn-off just before the rains came on Friday, which helped with the fire situation. “It slowed everything down,” she notes, adding that the extreme wind shifts on Wednesday were what caused the fire to increase in size so rapidly and dramatically. “The fire was completely wind-driven.”

Alicia Rhodenizer (l) and another crew member work on fire suppression. Photo by Barbara Roden

No cause has been determined, but the suspicion is that it was human-caused, as there were no lightning strikes in the area when the fire started. “It’s frustrating to fight human-caused fires,” she admits. “It diverts our resources.”

Robertson says that this year’s fire affected much of the same area burned by last year’s Cisco wildfire; and that’s far from the first fire in the area. He points up the hillside at what he calls “grey wood”: pale grey tree trunks that poke up like ghosts here and there. These are, he says, remnants of a fire that raged through the area in the mid-1990s. “The people who were evacuated this year were evacuated last year during the Cisco fire,” he says. “And it’s the fourth or fifth time some of the older residents have been evacuated.”

We walk back down to the staging area through the orchard, where the trees, though scorched, still stand. One of them still has a large crop of fruit and I pick a couple of apples. The ground is covered in a layer of black ash, and puffs of white smoke swirl up underfoot at each step I take. I ask Robertson how long it will be before anything starts to grow here again.

A scorched apple tree in an old orchard still bears fruit after the fire. Photo by Barbara Roden

“The fine fuels—grass, wild roses—will start to come back now, with the rainy season,” he replies. What he doesn’t add is that this means, despite efforts to burn off unnecessary fuel now, there will be a new crop of it for next year.

Back at the staging area I speak with crew leader Justin Thom, who lives on the west side of the river and was evacuated from his home for the second time in two years. He was also evacuated during the mid-1990s fire, in which he lost his house. “It hits close to home, because I know all the residents,” he says in a soft voice. “My house is located just south of the fire. I still have a hand guard around it from last time.

“I immediately knew there was a fire on the mountain, and was ready and waiting to respond,” he continues. “I was worried about my own home, but I know the priority is to keep houses safe. I knew my house was in good hands.”

We turn in our hardhats, shake hands with the crew, and head back to Lytton, where the River Festival is in full swing. Amid the sound of music and laughter I can occasionally hear the buzz of a helicopter overhead, but a more immediate reminder is the smell of smoke, which permeates my clothing and seems stuck in my nose and throat.

I reach into my coat pocket for the bottle of water there, and feel something hard and round. I pull out the apples I picked earlier, and marvel at nature’s tenacity in the face of disaster. I wonder if any of the displaced bears will discover the apples, once the fire crews have left, and whether there will be more for them next year. I hope so; they’re delicious.

As of press time on Tuesday, September 6, the South Spencer Road fire was 75 per cent contained, and crews are continuing to monitor the fire.

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