British Columbia·Point of View

B.C. fires: CBC journalist faced evacuation, destruction of his own cabin

Brian Dance had read newscasts​ about forest fires for decades, but never dealt with a fire encroaching on his own home.

Brian Dance's 'dream home' fell under evacuation alert

The Stickpin fire in Washington State rages on Aug. 14, as captured by photographer J. Foster-Fanning and posted by the U.S. Forest Service. (J. Foster-Fanning)

As a morning news reader I've read stories about fires for decades. 

Somehow the words on the page read differently when the fire threatened my own dream home.

Last month, my vacation property near Christina Lake, B.C., fell under an evacuation alert (a warning that we may have to evacuate at any moment) and I felt what so many British Columbians have endured during this incredible year of forest fires. I can't even imagine the stress of being under an evacuation order (where you actually have to leave) or, even worse, the horror of losing your home and dreams in a wildfire.

Brian Dance, a familiar voice to CBC Radio listeners, shared what happened when the Stickpin wildfire threatened his own dream home in Christina Lake, B.C. (CBC)

My heart goes out to those 30 property owners in Rock Creek who didn't even get the chance to prepare and leave with some memories, pictures or that special letter or treasured piece of furniture.

Our roller-coaster ride of emotion started a few weeks ago when smoke from the gigantic Stickpin fire in north-central Washington started drifting north to Canada.

From then on I spent my days watching the wind.

If the southwest winds were blowing, the smoke would thicken and make breathing difficult. If it changed direction and starting blowing from the north, Christina Lake would be the beautiful place we have always known, a summer vacation spot for hundreds of people. 

Lake blanketed with tiny dead flies

I remember we were enjoying a beach halfway down the lake in late August with family when suddenly the surface of the lake was blanketed with tiny dead flies. Looking up, the smoke was coming in fast from the south.

It was an eerie feeling and it didn't subside. Next we noticed firefighters in our community looking at potential fire risks. There were five trucks on our road so I stopped to chat. They were all from Vanderhoof and had been reassigned now that the threat of fires in central and northern BC had diminished. They told me their presence was only a precaution, there was no threat at this time. Although it was reassuring, having them so close, it made us quickly realize the potential of this threat. 

Then came days of changing winds. One day the smoke would choke the valley, then it would clear.  All the while the massive 20,000-hectare Stickpin fire was growing and moving toward the Canadian border. 

The first meetings in Grand Forks and Christina Lake on Aug. 20 were jammed with people well aware of the approaching threat. Microphones and speakers had to be used so the vast crowd could hear officials. No alert yet. No need to leave. They all seemed calm, eager only to smother any panic.

Firefighters were brought in from Vanderhoof to be ready in Christina Lake, in case the Stickpin fire kept spreading north. (Courtesy Dana Hicks)

'It doesn't look good'

B.C. wildfire officials said firefighters and aircraft from our province were ready to help the Americans battle this blaze on the northern flank, but there were three days of red tape to deal with first, before they could fight fire. Ten helicopters sat ready at the Grand Forks airport waiting, until clearance finally came. By then the smoke was thick, and so was the frustration over why planes were grounded.

The next day, the tension grew when several firefighters showed up at our house and started taking pictures and asking questions. Where is your water source? What are your contact numbers? Several members of our family had arrived for a weekend gathering despite some cautious phone calls about the situation. Suddenly we were responsible for the safety of many more people.

Then structural protection officers showed up. One told us to make the house safer, dig up the lawn around the house, cut more trees and branches, clean up pine cones and bushes around the propane tank. No guarantee of any support if the fire came; it might be too dangerous for his men. And then he told me something that started my own panic process. I asked, "With all your experience, what do you think?" He was honest when he answered: "It doesn't look good."

Smoke from the Stickpin fire, burning in Washington State near the border, could be seen from Highway 3 in southern B.C. ( CBC)

Time to go

Winds were turning again and the smoke was thick all night. By Sunday I made a decision: time to go.

My sons and their families helped us load all five "P's":  pictures, papers, photographs, pets and prescriptions. We also took a piece of chain-saw art (a bear head) and some homemade furniture.

By Tuesday I was back at work, reading the news for CBC Radio, following every move of the fire. In between newscasts, I obsessively checked forecasts.

The evacuation alert came Wednesday, Aug. 26. I held my emotions in check as I read the information on the air. Warnings of "ember showers" starting spot fires came next, and then high winds.  Evacuation was the next step.

I felt sorry for my neighbours trapped in smoke and worry. I thought of the Seymours at nearby Owl Mountain Ranch whose outfitting business was in jeopardy and who had to get their horses to safe areas.

The winds came Saturday night right after we dealt with the windstorm of the decade in Vancouver. The newsroom was frantic so I didn't have any time to really think of the fire until BC Wildfire reported pulling out of the fire zone for safety reasons. Winds were expected to gust to 80-kilometres an hour from the south which would fan the flames northward towards our communities. The Stickpin wildfire had come to within five kilometres of the Canadian border.

I could picture those dreaded embers coming.

Support came from communities all over the region. Crews attacked properties, erecting structural protection, dropping off water. I later discovered a 2500-gallon water bladder filled next to my house, connected to an elaborate sprinkler system.

I was grateful.

Sunday, back at CBC, I learned winds passed over the fire. What a blessing. The storm that toppled trees and cut power to hundreds of thousands in Vancouver had brought rain and relief and the evacuation alert was lifted. I brought the good news to CBC listeners.

I could feel the tension release. The week-long knot in my stomach was slowly easing.

I have a whole new respect for those hard-working men and women who have hardly had a day off all summer fighting wildfires in B.C.

When you drive along Highway 3 through the ashes and ruins of Rock Creek, there is a sign in the middle of town that reads "Thank-you firefighters," from the townspeople who dealt with the fear of losing everything. I echo this. You are amazing people.

On the Washington State website it says the Stickpin fire will be contained by October 15.

A deep breath until then.