Red Deer Wildfire still burning out of control

Trent Ernst, Editor


Note: This article was written on Monday. For the most recent updates on the fire or on anything affecting town, visit our Facebook page.

A wildfire in the Red Deer Creek area, covering 38.5 square kilometres has forced the Peace River Regional District to declare a state of local emergency for the area. This gives the Regional District “extraordinary emergency powers, such as the ability to order an evacuation and control travel to unsafe areas, in order to prevent or alleviate the effects of the emergency.”

An evacuation order was issued for the Ojay, Grizzly South and Red Deer Creek areas southeast of Tumbler Ridge, and travel into these areas is restricted.

“The Peace River Regional District is working closely with the Wild Fire Management Branch and the Oil and Gas Commission to coordinate emergency response activities to protect the health, safety and welfare of people in the area and to limit damage to property.”

As part of the evacuation order, two hundred people were evacuated from a trio of oil and gas camps in the area.

One of those camps was the Grizzly Ridge Lodge, run by Horizon Remote Catering. Jim Gibb is the Area Manager for Horizon. He says that he was out there a few days ago. “We’ve been keeping an eye on it,” he says. “There’s a generator still running down there, so we have to go in every few days to refuel.”

Gibb says that the camp was undamaged when he was last out there. “They had sprinklers on the roof, but they also back burned all around it,” he says. “And the facility is on open ground, so there are not a lot of trees in the area.” Gibb says he suspects the site will be just fine. “But it will take a couple weeks to get the smoke out,” he says with a laugh.

It will also take a few days to clean the place up, he says, as the fire tossed a lot of ash and pine needles onto the property.

Gibb has been working camps for the last 25 years, and while he says he has supplied the cooks and ran groceries for fire crews before, this is the first time that a camp has ever been threatened like this. Horizon has a camp in the Two Lakes area of Alberta, and if the fire keeps going, he’s worried that camp might also be in harm’s way.

“The big thing here, is this all goes back to the pine beetle,” says Gibb. “Nothing’s been done with those dead trees. They’re just like gas. Fire hits them and it just explodes, with flames fifty feet into the air.”

The fire was discovered on July 6, and was started by lightning. The blaze grew from a few hundred hectares to 3852 ha after one week, the blaze whipped up by strong winds and dry, hot weather. The blaze was suspected of covering about 5000 ha, or 50 square kilometres, but more accurate fire modeling shows the fire isn’t as big as suspected.

Crews have been busy building a fire line in an effort to start to contain the blaze, but at last report, the first was only 30 percent contained.

The fire, 61 km southeast of Tumbler Ridge, is being pushed eastwards towards the Alberta boundary and away from town by the prevailing winds.

The wind is not just driving the fire front towards Alberta, it is also throwing hot ash and cinder into the air. According to the Wildfire Management branch, on Saturday, July 12, a number of spot fires started on the east side of the Belcourt River, which crews have managed to contain. “If the crews hadn’t stopped those,” says Doug Smith, Incident Commander for the fire, “this fire would be pushing into Alberta.”

The morale is currently high with the crews on this fire, says Rosalie MacAulay, the Wildfire Information Officer now stationed in Tumbler Ridge. “This is a complex fire that requires a high degree of technical expertise, and the crews are seeing positive results on this fire,” she says. “They have had a lot of successful controlled burns of unburnt fuels and establishing firelines.”

Initially, the chance of containing the fire was low to moderate, says MacAulay but over the last few days, crews have made considerable gains.

Sunday and Monday, were much calmer than previous days, allowing crews to get ahead of the fire and partially contain it. “Although we are achieving good success the extreme conditions being faced by fire fighters create some uncertainty on the outcome.”

With the fire about 10 km from the Alberta boundary, crews from Alberta came into BC on Monday, July 14 to help fight the fire, but also to study the fire in case it crosses into Alberta.

When it started, the Red Deer fire was one of only a few burning out of control in the province, but as of Monday, there were eight fires of note burning in the province, a half a dozen of them in the Prince George Fire District, including a 4000 ha fire burning west of Williston Lake, and an 80 ha fire discovered on Saturday near Morfee Lake east of Mackenzie. That one is only six km from the town, though the wind is currently blowing the fire in a southerly direction. A pair of tankers are battling that blaze.

Earlier on, water bombers were being used to fight the Red Deer Fire, but, due to the fire’s size they have since been removed. “Tankers aren’t going to do anything,” says Jillian Kelsh, Communications Officer for the Prince George Fire Centre. “The water is going to evaporate before it hits the fire. So, we are using them on smaller fires where there is more chance of success.”

A fire discovered west of Hudson’s Hope is also throwing up plenty of ash and smoke. Wildfire Management is investigating the fire, but Kelsh suspects that is where the smoke that has recently engulfed Tumbler Ridge is coming from.