Like an angry dragon, the Bush Creek East wildfire in Sorrento began an aggressive run down Black Mountain in the early morning hours of August 30.
Thanks to a tremendous effort by four Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) fire departments, BC Wildfire Service and the CP Rail fire train, flames were held back before reaching any structures.
Mark Zaichkowsky, Tappen-Sunnybrae fire chief was at the incident command post on the Bush Creek East fire. Working the night shift on August 29, Zaichkowksy had a clear view across Shuswap Lake.
He says projected winds from an approaching cold front began picking up around 8 PM and grew increasingly gusty as the evening progressed. While a wind event had been forecast, nobody expected rank 4 and 5 fire behaviour.
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“By 12:30, we saw a large trail of fire tracking toward Sorrento and we knew where it was heading,” Zaichkowksy adds.
He alerted CSRD Deputy Fire Chief Sean Coubrough and Shuswap Deputy Fire Chief Ty Barrett at 1:15 AM.
“BC Wildfire raced out of the North Shuswap with a night task force equipped with three engines and one water tender,” Coubrough says. The Shuswap, White Lake and Eagle Bay firehalls responded with four water tenders and four engines and were joined by structural firefighters from Tappen-Sunnybrae, who arrived with two tenders and one engine.
“We had 40-plus firefighters with local knowledge and experience,” adds Coubrough.
Wall of flame
One of the White Lake firefighters to respond was Sophie Randell, who had left her car in the North Shuswap when she was ordered off the Bush Creek East when it exploded on the night of August 18.
Having retrieved her car, now with ember burns on its fenders, Randell was driving herself towards another wall of fire.
“I rounded a curve and thought ‘oh shit, this is not a small fire,’” she says. “Adrenaline was pumping and it was eyes wide open.”
CSRD firefighters immediately began spraying water to save a chicken farm near Frederickson Road.
Randell says working on constantly emerging hot spots at the edge of the forest was challenging.
Pulling in all the water resources
Coubrough says the BC Wildfire task force leader expressed concern about their limited access to water and asked why CSRD firefighters were using so much.
Incident commander Barrett advised that CSRD had six tenders enroute, so watering wouldn’t be a problem. The regional district would share the resource.
“We were able to wet the area and create a bit of a humidity zone, reducing the threat to structures,” says Coubrough. “We basically created a rainforest. You could feel the humidity increase as we did our work.”
Crews were also tasked with battling a wall of fire heading towards power lines and were sent in to protect a home, shop and a mobile home that was close to the rapidly progressing fire.
“The fire got into a pit area behind the mobile home that was filled with unknown material, and an incredibly large slash pile that was 30 feet wide at its base,” Coubrough adds. “The ember shower resulting from that slash pile spread quickly to the green area which connected to the mobile home.”
After wetting the area around the mobile home, structural firefighters joined BCWS in the attack on the wall of fire that was producing an incredibly large ember shower.
“Fires were spreading quickly at rank four to five, which includes candling,” says Coubrough.
Unlike a typical fire where 1.5-inch hoses are used, CSRD firefighters were equipped with 2.5-inch hoses that are heavier but deliver 200 to 325 gallons of water as opposed to the smaller 150 to 200 gallons per minute.
Regional District firefighters set up two very large portable water tanks that were being refilled at the Sorrento Firehall first, then switching to Firehall # 2 on the Trans-Canada Highway near Nico’s Nurseryland.
No structures lost
“There was no water in Sorrento the next day, but we didn’t lose any properties,” Coubrough says, pointing out the BCWS task force leader approached him later and said, ‘we would have been in trouble without you guys.’
“This was excellent cooperation between BCWS and our fire department,” he adds. “The local experience and knowledge brought by our firefighters was instrumental in preventing structure loss.”
Photos: (Top) An image of what firefighters saw when they arrived in Sorrento on August 30, 2023. (Middle) Firefighters battle the blaze as the fire crests the hillside. (Below) Sean Coubrough, Mark Zaichkowsky, and Sophie Randell in the Emergency Operations Centre.