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What I Learned Fleeing the Tumbler Ridge Fire

Human kindness, and what to keep close to your heart.

By Trent Ernst 6 Jul 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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Captive to winds of fate

[Editor’s note: Wednesday morning dawned cool, cloudy and wet. Around 4 p.m. the evacuation order was downgraded to an evacuation alert and people began returning to Tumbler Ridge. Trent Ernst is one thousands whose home was endangered and now appears safe, as the fire moves away from town. Here is his account of life as a forest fire refugee.]

There’s a joke that makes the rounds among the teenagers of Tumbler Ridge. It goes like this: Why is Tumbler Ridge so windy? Because Chetwynd sucks and Dawson blows. I mention this because Chetwynd, Dawson and wind, figure prominently into the following story.

From Monday to Friday, I work as a graphic designer in Dawson Creek, where I rent an apartment with a couple other Tumbler Ridge guys who also work in Dawson Creek. On weekends, I head back home to Tumbler Ridge. Home, the old chestnut goes, is where the heart is. Tumbler Ridge is where my three year old daughter, my wife and many of the other people who can lay claim to a piece of my heart, are to be found.

It was with much disappointment that we had to break the news to my daughter that the Canada Day Fireworks were cancelled. It was too dry, and, the evening before, 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.

On Saturday, I went to visit my sister, Jerrilyn, the former Emergency Social Services Association Northeast Representative and a veteran of the Barriere fire. Because of her experiences down south, she was watching the Current Wildfire Situation Page with a good deal of concern. What had started out as a 40-hectare fire had grown to 1000 hectares in the last 24 hours.

Like a celebration

By Sunday afternoon, the fire had blossomed to 4000 hectares, and my wife, also a trained ESS volunteer, started getting organized, just in case of an emergency.

At this point in time, the savvy writer would pull back to show the broader picture of what was happening in town, but as it turns out, I was blissfully unaware of the big picture. Yes, I knew the Hourglass Creek fire was moving towards town and growing. A fourth fire had been discovered in the Rat Lake area, about 50 km from town. But what was the mood on the street? I didn’t know, as I was stuck in my basement, madly rushing to salvage a missed deadline on a book that I was writing.

When I emerged that evening to attend a birthday party for a friend, I had my first hint of what was going on. From behind the ridge behind the town, smoke was mushrooming up into the atmosphere. A friend later 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 cumulous cloud coming up over the ridge.

In fact, what I had heard made the whole thing sound a bit like a celebration. People had been driving up the highway to watch the fire. Some had even gone so far as to pack picnic baskets. The whole situation seemed out of place. There had been a few major fires in the area before, but not many. The forest around here is called the asbestos forest by many, and the most severe fire I know of happened nearly a decade ago up an obscure valley, far away from town. To have four fires burning at the same time? This was an event, maybe even better than Canada Day fireworks.

Time to flee

But that evening, the situation, and the perception of the situation, changed, along with the wind. The main topic of conversation at the birthday party (besides how old Doug was now) was the fire. Jerrilyn, who had been keeping tabs on the fire with the local emergency services, reported that the highway to Dawson Creek had been closed. People asked her what they should be doing to prepare in case of an evacuation.

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.

Monday dawned bright, clear, and hot. I retreated to the basement and to my book project. I packed up my clothes in anticipation of returning to Dawson Creek that evening. With the road to Dawson closed, our only option was to go via Chetwynd, which doubled the already hour-long drive.

And so it was that I was already nearly ready to leave the house anyway when the phone rang. It was my sister calling to tell us to get ready to go; an evacuation order was immanent. 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.

Precious cargo

What does one take in the case of an evacuation?

Well, having an Emergency Kit is really handy, though I will admit that my wife organized everything in ours. After that, it was to find what could not be replaced. A box full of photographs and negatives. The backup drive for my computer. (The computer itself gets left behind. It is the content, not the machine, which is irreplaceable. In fact, as I was looking at my now seven-year-old G4, the thought crossed my mind that if the house burned down, I would have to get a new laptop. Not that I want the house to burn down, but if it did….) And besides, we didn’t have any room in the car. I grabbed my camera, our important documents (passports, insurance papers, etc), and that was it. A house full of stuff, including an entire closet dedicated to all my “I need to keep this because it’s important” boxes and a wall-sized bookshelf of my “must-have” books reduced to a bank box and a backpack.

Across the road, neighbours with bigger and better toys loaded up quads and snowmobiles. Others loaded personal effects into RVs just returned from Canada Day camping trips.

By the time our family 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 50 other cars leaving with us, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong.

By the time we hit Chetwynd, there was a line-up out the door of the recreation centre, where an emergency reception centre had been set up by a handful of emergency social services volunteers from Chetwynd. A few of the team from Tumbler also pitched in, including yours truly. As we walked in, we passed a friend, Lori Madsen, standing in line. She told us not to worry about accommodations. She was staying with a friend, and her friend had a camper we could sleep in. Then, she asked if she could look after our daughter while we were working.

Kindness and generosity

Over the course of the evening, a few dozen people offered to volunteer and were put to work. Names of evacuees were taken. People who needed accommodations were given vouchers for hotels and motels in the area, which quickly filled up. Some people decided to continue on to Dawson Creek, where a second reception centre had been set up. Group lodging was set up in the school gym where people were sent to sleep on high jump and floor mats. Local restaurants offered to stay open late. A grocery store opened for an hour around midnight so people could pick up supplies. People from Chetwynd called to offer up spare rooms. It was an amazing display of generosity and kindness from the townsfolk. Despite the situation, most people have been calm and even jovial.

By two in the morning, the majority of people had come through the reception centre; volunteers were sent home to get some sleep, as the next day, people would start coming through looking for food, clothing and information.

Tuesday -- day two of the evacuation -- was quiet. The reception centre, after a few bumps in the road (like running out of referral forms for food and shelter the first night), ran smoothly. Nearly everyone was billeted out. Some people, having nothing else to do, went to the beach for the afternoon. While there are things I could have done at the reception centre to help out, I am not irreplaceable, so I went to Dawson Creek, to work for the next few days.

Back in Tumbler Ridge, the fire, after spreading so rapidly, has stabilized, for now. The forecast for the next few days calls for showers, and even periods of rain, which bodes well for keeping the fire under control. By Wednesday afternoon, the evacuation order had been downgraded, and people were headed home.

And if the expected rains aren’t enough to douse the flames? If the fire does redouble and reach the town? I don’t want to trivialize what’s happening now, but the fact is life goes on. To quote a comment I overheard this morning: “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.

Trent Ernst is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Tumbler Ridge. His previous story for The Tyee was Struggling to Stay in Tumbler Ridge.

Related Tyee story: How BC Was Built to Burn.  [Tyee]

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