Fire Chief Andy Palaniak was on patrol near 83 Mile Road last week when he spotted an arm of the Flat Lake fire jumping a sprinkler and heading straight toward a house.
The head of the Watch Lake-North Green Lake Volunteer Fire Department, aided by a fellow firefighter and two RCMP officers who happened to be in the area, didn’t hesitate: using rakes and shovels they beat back the blaze before dousing it with water.
It was all in a day’s work for Palaniak and his 24-member crew, who have been working day and night since lightning strikes sparked a fire near the Watch Lake dump on June 30.
“That pretty well started everything,” said Roy Allan, a director and communications officer with the independent volunteer force.
The WLNGL volunteer crew members, who are trained in fighting wildfires, have been offering support to the BC Wildfire Service personnel since the wildfire season started. They initially responded to the Watch Lake dump fire, but then kept the area clear and traffic under control for the next two days as BC firefighting crews battled flare-ups in the bush.
From there, they helped out at the Si Lake wildfire, “which hung in there for three to four days, it was so hard to get to,” Allan said. When the Flat Lake fire flared up – prompting evacuation orders and alerts – the department was once again called in to provide water and patrol for spot fires, mostly around 83 Mile.
The department has three tenders, two engines and two support vehicles, including a one-tonne pumper that can hold 250 gallons of water and an emergency transportation vehicle (EMT) to carry crew, Allan said. At 83 Mile Road, BC Wildfire has about six water bladders, while the local fire department also set up two portable ponds – plastic pools on a frame that can hold 2,000 gallons of water.
The local department is responsible for providing water, which it gets from two dry hydrants at Green Lake 10 miles away. The crew also helps out with pumps and hoses when needed.
“They do the actual firefighting and basically we provide water,” Allan said. “Our major concern is containing the Flat Lake fire so it doesn’t jump the highway. There’s nothing but dry forest between the highway and Green Lake.”
He noted firefighters had a close call on Wednesday, July 21, when the fire did jump the highway at 83 Mile. It was spotted by two RCMP officers and a couple of bystanders who “were just beating on it with whatever they had,” Allan said.
The local fire crew doused it with water. When the fire was out, the crew started patrols, before going back on water duty, working a straight 36 hours.
Palaniak said his crew, which doesn’t normally get a lot of call-outs every year, have been running on shock and adrenaline over the past few weeks. They tend to do two-hour shifts on patrol and four to six-hour shifts on tenders.
“We have two response vehicles carrying 1,000 litres water tanks. If they do see little hotspots they put them out,” he said, adding they have been working for more than two weeks straight. “It is tiring, but you just keep going because that’s what we’re here for. There’s an end in sight. Everyone is in it for the right reasons.”
As a wildfire-trained crew, Palaniak’s members are aware of the hazards of fighting fires with fallen trees and branches and the importance of digging out the roots where the fires have started, Allan said. It’s not just putting out the fire and being done.
“Lightning strikes are particularly ugly because they go into the ground and flare up later,” Allan said, adding the trees are usually smoking and easy to find. “It takes a little bit of training. You have to understand the characteristics of crowning. One of the dangers is when it crowns, it slides from top to top of the trees. There’s a danger there of it sucking up the oxygen from below.”
He noted the local firefighters patrol day and night.
Wednesday, July 21, was a bad day on the highway because of the smoke and a cattle drive on the highway.
Allan said most of the crew was available when the fires first struck and have remained during the past few weeks.
They were most recently needed on Sunday when the fire jumped Highway 97 in almost the same spot as it did previously. BC Wildfire had three helicopters bucketing from the gravel pit.
If needed, the local fire department can call in support from South Green Lake Volunteer Fire Department and Lone Butte Volunteer Fire Department through mutual aid agreements. The Watch Lake-North Green Lake is an independent department, while the South Green Lake crew is funded by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and Lone Butte by the Cariboo Regional District.
“It’s all our houses and properties. We’re pretty worried. 2017 was a terrible scare for most of us,” Allan said. “We now have cinders and ash and pine needles falling on our properties. It brings back memories for a lot of people.”