August 16, 2021 Fire in the sky
I couldn’t believe my eyes. What I saw in front of me stunned me to the core.
The mountain was lit up with an eerie red glow. Over the hills in front of us, we could see raging fire fill the sky. It filled my stomach with a queasy feeling. An empty knot twisted inside.
Flames lept higher as I drove around the corner from Westlake road to Stevens road.
The fire was close. Too close.
Krista got a text message earlier in the day from my daughter. “Fire by the Coquihalla Highway,” She wrote, “it’s coming toward the house. Where are you?”
My wife looked at me and asked “what about the cats?”
I shrugged in response, “the cats will be fine.” I pushed down the ache inside my guts. Our cats would be ok, but what about those who are in the path of the oncoming flames?
We were having a nice visit with our good friends relaxing by the pool and enjoying a connection in the midst of the chaos. Our piece of paradise has been left shaken and tattered by a combination of drought, fires, and the pandemic in the past few weeks. The last thing any of us wanted to learn about was a fire even closer than the one raging a mere twenty kilometres to the north of us.
It would turn out to be all too real and all too close.
It was great to reconnect with our ski friends in the summertime. Byron, Karen, and Andrew were happy to hang out and catch up. The last time we saw each other was at the top of Big White only a week before the hill was shut down early because of covid. We laughed about our recent adventures and shared stories of our lives. For a brief moment, the outside world was only a distant memory.
Until we got the text.
Then another one followed. We learned there was a fire in the mountains above our home, people were being evacuated. The fire to the north was raging unchecked and there were at least 60 structures lost. Where we were, the smell of smoke hung in the air like a phantom, it was there for a brief second then it was gone. Or were we imagining it? The mind can play tricks on the body, especially when faced with an unknown threat.
The world seemed so separate from everything beyond the towering pine trees that encircled us. Inevitably our conversations turned to the dilemma we all faced. Summer was becoming more fearful than fun. We missed the slopes and the simplicity of mountain life. Nothing was perfect but at least in winter, the air was clear and pure. The biggest problem was whether to put on powder skis or not.
In the backyard we stood around Karen and Byron’s pool, we sensed a tingling vulnerability. The magnificent trees that sheltered us from the sun and wind could light up and burn from an ember floating in the breeze. The wind howled in the tips of the trees. We could hear them creak and groan as the gusts swept down from the mountain tops. Driven by the wind, the conflagration of fires increased by the second.
Where have all the birds gone? We all noticed the silence in the trees. There was no bird song anymore, only the ominous creaking of the swaying timber.
Hidden by the trees and our desire for normalcy, we had no idea how much the blaze was becoming an inferno.
We left our friends with a feeling of uneasiness. I was disconnected from the reality that was about to glow in my face. And glow it did. We neared our home knowing it was still far enough away from the fire, we hoped we would not be evacuated.
How could we help? What could we do? Were our cats ok? What about the horses on the ranches that were being swept up in the roaring flames.
The red glow in the sky gave me an empty feeling inside. It ate at my very soul. I knew there were homes up there in the hills. I also knew it was a numbers game for our firefighters. Their goal was to save the most homes they could.
They did an amazing job.
We stared at the mountain that filled our view. Bursts of red erupted as the next tree candled. We got home and were greeted by the cats waiting for attention. We knew they sensed something was wrong. As we stood on our deck staring at the fire consuming the mountainside our neighbors walked out onto the street and stood there in a daze.
“What do we do?’ Amy looked back at us. I could tell she was shaken by the sight of our world on fire. But there was nothing to be done but wait, and hope.
I tried to smile at her in reassurance. “Nothing we can do, we are far enough away from the fires….” Yet it seemed so close as the black and red colours filled the sky.
I awoke the next morning with mixed feelings of dread and relief. We had made it through the night and no one came banging on the door telling us to get out. I lay there and listened. It was the sound of rotating motors spinning overhead that brought me out of my slumber. The roar of an airplane engine sailed overhead. then another and another.
It was war. It sure sounded like a warzone. The only thing missing was the rat a tat tat of gunfire. Water bombers soared overhead. Helicopters circled, as all resources were deployed to fight the roaring flames.
It was a different kind of war. It was a war without winners. one that has only the least loser… I was happy to note I fell on the side of least loser. I felt for those that lost, they would return home to ashes and dust. Thankfully, no lives have been lost… I hope.
Sometime, late in the morning, the wind shifted and changed directions. It was blowing back toward the fire, away from the homes of the many residents who were stuck evacuated from their lives. By the afternoon we could see the smoldering vapors lifting into the air. Air that was being filled by the smoke from the 600-hectare blaze. Helicopters kept circling overhead, dousing the flames bucket by bucket.
Then came the rain. Blessed, cooling, raindrops began to descend upon the parched landscape. It seemed the people of upper Glenrosa in West Kelowna may have been spared. But the people in many other parts of the province still sit evacuated, not knowing if they would have a home to return to.
The fire that threatened my city of West Kelowna is a speck on the map compared to the 60,000-hectare fire that is raging in the mountains to the northwest. Merritt is in fear of the fire on the other side of the mountain range. North of us the tiny community of Killiney Beach has been wiped from the earth.
The rain drizzled down, giving us hope.
Will it be enough? I’ll wash my truck, do a rain dance, and hope. Let it rain, please let it rain.