No Time! – Or Not Just Another Walk in the Park ? July 1, 2006

No Time! – Or Not Just Another Walk in the Park ? July 1, 2006

A Tumbler Ridge wildfire evacuation story

Lorraine and Ben packed up the last of the camping gear into the VW van and headed for Bootski Lake west of Tumbler Ridge in B.C. We drove the Heritage highway and turned at the Wapiti Forestry Road. We parked the van at the trail head, bolted on our hiking boots, grabbed our loaded backpacks and headed off. We were set for an overnight backpack to the lake.

We had hiked this trail almost one year ago with Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society members.

The trail started in an old cut block. It followed the zigzag logging road up through the block to where the narrow trail winds steeply upwards through the conifer forest. There were numerous blowdown trees that one must climb over. Higher up the trees changed to shorter alpine firs. After 2 ½ hours up, we had reached the alpine, dumped our packs and were enjoying a well earned ?break?.

Looking back eastward we could see, on the right hand, mushroom clouds of smoke boiling up from the Red Deer valley, probably some 30 miles away. Then on the left hand we could see smoke on the horizon, but this was still really far far away (the Thunder Mtn fire).

The view was spectacular but something was definitely wrong! It just did not feel right and we both felt it! The air was perfectly still. I remarked about this instinctive gut feeling. I said ?I do not feel good about this trip.

We should not camp over up here. Let?s leave our packs right here and go look at the lake, then consider going back down again!? Lorraine agreed. She wanted to go back right now! But I convinced her we had time to go look at the lake and cool our heels.

We left our packs at the wooden cross on the top of the alpine meadow and headed on west and down into the cirque, maybe another km to Bootski Lake. The snow around the lake was minimal and the lake was much smaller than last year. We took off our boots and cooled our feet in the icy waters. Lorraine wanted to leave quickly so we headed back to our packs.

Walking east again we could see the amazing amounts of smoke in the valley ahead. At first we thought it was smoke blown in from the south fire. But it was too much smoke! Then straight ahead the black column and mushroom smoke, boiling up was in the wrong place! We grabbed our packs and looked over the edge of the meadow to a horrific scene.

There was definitely a new fire! A wall of bright orange flame (hundreds of feet high?) was now marching down the valley on both sides of the road. It was proceeding from the north; southward bearing down on a little white ?dot? that was our VW van! We were shocked!

We were almost 5 km away and 1600? higher than the van. Could we save the vehicle? Did we have enough time? Lorraine was yelling;?The van is gone! The van is gone! No!! No!!? I looked at her and yelled, ?Save your breath for running!? and I was gone, running, downhill towards the fire and to the van! My mind was made up.

I was going for it!!! As I was running downhill, my mind was racing faster than my feet. Could we possibly out run this fire? If we got caught down there we could die! I should go the other way and let it burn! But I had worked so hard on restoring this 1977 Westfalia van including new bodywork and new paint: all that time and money and all the stuff in it. I loved that van. But the van was only a ?piece of tin?! It was not worth dying for!

But it was also the freedom machine, a symbol of less hectic days, the good old times, the happy experiences, the — ?blah, blah, blah!!! This was crazy! Were we even safe up here to watch?

My feet were charged, jumping over the log obstacles like a deer, my heart pounding in my throat! I had to try. I had to run! I had to get rid of the pack, it was slowing me down. What did I have in there, anyway: a brand new tent, never even used in the backcountry, over $600 bucks; my pack was worth maybe $300 bucks; my North Face jacket worth $250 bucks; my down sleeping bag worth over $300 bucks. A total of easily $1500. But yet what was the van worth and what about my LIFE! What was it worth? Much much more than that!

Now I was out of the woods, running down the winding gravel logging road. I saw a wide flat turn on the old road, surely a helicopter could land here, and I dumped my pack! I had to find the keys! There they were under all that stuff in my top pack pocket.

I grabbed my water bottle and my hiking pole and was gone, running again! I saw and heard a helicopter up there. I was waving and yelling! They had to see me now. They did nothing, but buzz around up there. I saw the flames; I heard the fire?s roar. I felt the wind. I breathed the smoke. I saw the van. It was still down there a long long way from here. I saw a white truck at the van now. Someone knew we were out there!

My throat was parched, I could not run anymore. I had a side stitch. I was walking as fast as I could. And what about Lorraine? Where was she? I heard her yelling behind me. I turned and saw Lorraine. I saw a wall of flame, maybe 50-100? behind her. She was at the last switchback of the road.

There were no trees left between Lorraine and the flames. The fire was very, very close now. It was crackling and roaring right on our backs! I waved and yelled, ?Come on!? Now I was crossing the bridge and the little creek. I thought that I could throw myself in it, if I had to! I might have to, yet!

The helicopter definitely saw us as it was right overhead, watching us, like a hungry horse fly! Now, it was uphill to the van. I was exhausted but I had to keep struggling upward. I was very close now, to the end!

The flames were roaring right beside me. Suddenly, the helicopter landed right beside the van. The fire boss jumped out, ran a little towards me and yelled ?Get the F&@# out of here! He was waving his arm over his head. I was amazed! Why land now when it was really dangerous for him and the machine and why bother to tell me something that was so obvious? I jerked my thumb over my shoulder and yelled ?Help her!? He yelled back ?No time!? then ran into his machine and was gone! We were left on our own. I was at the van now; my hands were shaking so much I had a hard time fitting the key into the lock.

Finally it clicked open. I slid open the big side door, and opened the passenger door also. I jumped in and jammed the key into the steering column. The fire roar was so loud that I could not tell if the motor had started or not! Lorraine had clothes pinned a towel across the sun visors to keep the sun and heat out of the cab. It was caught on a sun visor and I had to rip it off! I rolled the van back and paused for Lorraine.

She lunged into the back on the floor, and yelled ?I have to close the door!? I yelled back ?No time!? The van charged out of the parking lot, onto the road and we were gone.

The flames and smoke were behind us now. We were saved! We raced ½ mile up the road to find a couple of trucks parked with gawking people. We fell out of the van; we were wild on adrenalin, I could not believe it! We had made it! We had saved ourselves and the van! Yahoo!!! Wow!! Wow!!

More water, drink, drink! It was 2 ½ hours up and 45 minutes down! We had won!

After thoughts:

This new fire had started from nowhere, probably an earlier smoldering lightning strike, and within an hour was out of control!

The people in the trucks had stopped at the van. They had fired off three shots to try to warn us. They had considered smashing our side window and trying to drag the van but decided they had – no time! They were really worried about us.

All the firefighters that we met later that day were from somewhere else (Prince George, Ft St John, Dawson Creek, Golden) and other places.

They said they had no idea where the hiking trails were! I was totally surprised that the trail heads were not marked on any forestry maps or that the pilot and firefighters had no local input into where the trail heads were located!

The helicopter pilot and fire boss said they had watched us run for the last ½ hour. ?We watched the woman run? they said, ?We wondered why she would not leave her pack??

They did go back up and picked up my pack for me, thanks! This proves that they could have landed in the cut block.

But now I really have to wonder why they did not help us earlier? There were many turns and places they could have landed! What would have happened if I had twisted my ankle or had a heart attack? Would they have watched me crawl? Would they have watched me burn?

I know how busy and stressed they were but in fire fighting I understand that ?life? is supposed to be #1 priority. Now I wonder if they are as traumatized as I am! We had run the race with the fire and we had won. Thank God, we were physically fit and in good hiking condition. It was not easy and we had to struggle but we had survived. We were lucky!

Now two simple words haunt my memories ? ?No time!?