Ten years on: The Hourglass Fire

Trent Ernst, Editor

It was ten years ago this week (July 3-6) that the District of Tumbler Ridge was evacuated for the Hourglass Fire.

The Tumbler Ridge Fire Department has posted photos from that event on their Facebook page. Here’s my recollections of that time, as pulled from a story I wrote for thetyee.ca.

It was with much disappointment that we had to break the news to my daughter that the Canada Day Fireworks were canceled. It was too dry, and two fires were discovered the night before that had been sparked off by lightning storms.

One, about 60 km out of town in the Wapiti Valley, and one only about 20 km away, near Hourglass Creek. A third fire, 80 km out of town was also burning out of control.

By Sunday afternoon, the fire had blossomed to 4000 hectares. From behind the ridge behind the town, smoke was mushrooming up into the atmosphere. A friend emailed me to say that he had seen the plume from the airport in Prince George, over 160 km away. But from this perspective it was hardly cause for concern. The ridge blocked most of the smoke; all you could see from town was the top of the mushroom, which, if you weren’t paying attention, looked almost exactly like a cumulus cloud coming up over the ridge.

In fact, the whole thing was a bit like a celebration. People were driving up the highway to watch the fire. Some had even gone so far as to pack picnic baskets. It was an event, maybe even better than Canada Day fireworks.

But that evening, the situation, and the perception of the situation, changed, along with the wind.

A refreshing breeze started to blow in from the east. But the breeze, which quickly turned into a fairly stiff wind, brought with it thick smoke from the fire. The setting sun turned a glorious shade of red, then faded away to nothing, obscured by the smoke. Out on the fire lines, the wind pushed the fire towards Tumbler Ridge.

By the next day, the fire had grown to over 11,000 hectares, and was rumoured to be only about five km from town. While there were no immediate worries about the town site itself, two of the three roads out of town were already closed because of fires. With the right winds, the fire could jump the Murray River and threaten the last road out of town. With semi-official word of the evacuation, it was time to grab the last few things, load the car and go.

By the time we left town, a thick dark thunder cloud had blown in, obscuring the rising smoke. The flames weren’t visible from the road. If it weren’t for the line up of cars leaving with us, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong.

We were evacuated for three days before the rains came and the evacuation order was lifted.

And if the rains aren’t enough to douse the flames? I don’t want to trivialize the event, but life goes on.

While we were getting ready to head back to Tumbler, I overheard someone say: “We fought tooth and nail to keep the town alive; I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch it go up in smoke.”

And that’s the fire that really burns in Tumbler Ridge, in the spirit of those who took a town carved fresh into the wilderness and made it a home for themselves and their family. The buildings may burn, but the community will not be destroyed. Fire may consume our houses, but it will not touch our families. We have gone through far too much and survived to let this break our spirit.