A helicopter touches down just in front of one of the four forest fires in the Tumbler Ridge area in early July 2006. TRFD photo. More pics below.
Editor's note: We welcome comments on this story! Please share your own experiences during the fire and evacuation, using the comments section below.
A little preparation goes a long ways – and sometimes, the weather is on your side too.
Those are the lessons that could drawn from Tumbler Ridge's close brush with the devastating Hourglass Creek forest fire in July 2006, the blackened remnants of which are still seen today along Highway 52 north of Tumbler Ridge.
With an evacuation alert upgraded to an evacuation order within two hours, the town reacted in textbook fashion to clear out – before 17 millimetres of much-needed rain fell to end the threat, with the fire covered 11,000 hectares and positioned just five kilometres from town.
It wasn't the only fire raging at the time – the Red Deer fire covered 10,700 hectares south of Tumbler Ridge, while the 3,400 hectare Rat Lake fire cut off Highway 52 South as an exit route, and the 1,800 hectare Wapiti fire presented its own problems.
"When you're dealing with forest fires of these magnitudes, the best plan is always to just get people out of the town," recalled Dan Golob, Tumbler Ridge fire chief at the time and the emergency operations centre (EOC) coordinator during the fire operation.
By the time everyone had arrived home three days later, the injury and damage toll was exactly the same as when they left – zero. Much of that success is thanks to an emergency plan that was updated in 2005, after the province witnessed forest fire destruction in Kelowna in 2003.
The first hint that things were amiss came when the Canada Day fireworks were cancelled, because the high school field was too dry. Concern grew, and it wasn't long before B.C. Forest Service firefighters began camping on the field, watching the situation progress.
"They set that up, and they were just kind of watching the fire," recalled current Tumbler Ridge Fire Department (TRFD) chief Matt Treit. "The day before the evacuation, the chief and I were driving around, telling people there's nothing to worry about yet. But many people seemed to be expecting it."
The evacuation finally happened on Monday, July 4, after Highway 52 to Dawson Creek was cut off due to flames. An evacuation alert had already gone into effect that afternoon – but then the wind shifted, and the smoke intensified, the order was given. The TRFD and the RCMP began going door to door, making sure people understood they would have to leave the town. About 95 per cent of the population did.
Some left right away, such as business owner Ed Kennedy, who recalls he "couldn't close up shop fast enough" to take advantage of the imposed time off, which was spent visiting relatives in Dawson Creek. Others stayed in Tumbler Ridge through the whole ordeal, with some homeowners spraying water on their homes and the roofs of their neighbours' homes, to slow the fire should it reach town.
During all this time, and through the evacuation, flames were never visible from the town.
In addition to being acting mayor through the first few hours of the threat, while Mike Caisley was returning from Grande Prairie, Pernell Kirby also ran the Tags and Fas Gas store in Tumbler Ridge. Once the order was given, he allowed his staff to leave, and managed the gas station by himself.
"There were probably 100 people in the store, line ups five or six deep at the pumps, and I ran it by myself," he said. "People were mad and angry at the slow service, screaming and hollering at me, because they all wanted to get out of town in a hurry. It was quite the nightmare."
The Shell station had closed down, and its employees had already left town. After the last customer left his gas station that night, Kirby remained behind and acted as a caterer to all personnel and elected officials working at the emergency operations centre (EOC) at town hall.
While flames could not be seen from town, winds meant the fire presented a risk of suddenly advancing on the town. The Hourglass fire was also jumping west across the Murray River, with more than 50 spot fires being handled by 12 helicopters rap attack fire fighting teams. But the fear was that those fires could cut off Highway 29, the last remaining road out of Tumbler Ridge. (At that point, the Rat Lake Fire had already cut off Highway 52 South).
That night, Tumbler Ridge was a virtual ghost town, as most residents had gone to emergency reception centres in Chetwynd and Dawson Creek, while others went camping and on visits to friends and family.
"It was actually quite nice," recalled Treit of the abandoned town feel.
Wednesday, July 6 dawned cool, cloudy and wet, and enough rain fell to finally end the threat, That declaration of local emergency was rescinded at 3 p.m., after 17 millimetres of rain fell.
Around 4 p.m. the evacuation order was downgraded to an evacuation alert and people began returning to Tumbler Ridge.
In retrospect, the recent fire in Slave Lake, Alberta is a good comparison to the Hourglass fire, said Golob, as both featured spot fires and heat. Tumbler Ridge is “basically a doughnut surrounded by forest,” much like Slave Lake, he said.
"It was a big learning curve for myself as well as the community," he said.
Ironically, a wildfire protection plan was completed for Tumbler Ridge in August 2006, one month after the fire had threatened.
Forest fire smoke provides a backdrop for town hall in this photo taken just before the town was evacuated on Monday, July 4. Tumbler Ridge News photo.
RCMP detachment chief Kurt Peats and Peace River South MLA Blair Lekstrom get down to business at town hall. TRFD photo.
Residents fuel up at Fas Gas before leaving town. Making sure the tank was full was part of the emergency plan, and many residents made sure they had enough gas well ahead of time. Tumbler Ridge News photo.
Town hall became the emergency operations centre (EOC) headed by then fire chief Dan Golob. TRFD photo.
As the risk of a fire increased, forest fire fighters arrived and set up camp in the Tumbler Ridge Secondary School (TRSS) field. TRFD photo.
A wall of flames was visible along Highway 52 after the Hourglass Creek fire intensified. TRFD photo.
Tumbler Ridge became a virtual ghost town after the evacuation alert. TRFD photo.
Concerns are shared by Peace River South MLA Blair Lekstrom and mayor Mike Caisley. TRFD photo.
Volunteers manage an emergency reception centre set up at Chetwynd's recreation centre. TRFD photo.
Forest fire smoke billows over homes on the upper bench. Tumbler Ridge News photo.