Leesa BeEson Leesa Beeson captured this image of the Philpott Road fire from an airplane in the hours when it sparked.

Joe Rich firefighters getting a handle on blaze

“It was tough for all our firefighters, but we have to think about protecting our community…”

As a massive plume of smoke rose over Joe Rich in the hours after the Philpott Road fire began, members of the community’s volunteer fire department had to throw themselves into the line of fire and put aside personal concerns.

“It was tough for all our firefighters, but we have to think about protecting our community,” said Lt. Marc Gruber of the Joe Rich Fire Department.

“When the call came out, I got the direction to ‘go’ and I was digging a fire guard on one of the flanks … it’s extremely scary because you’re thinking about where it is and how many people will be affected, but you have a job to do.”

A week into the firefight, 31 members of the 34-member Joe Rich department are still working to monitor and mop up burned areas and to keep the homes in the close-knit community safe should the wind push the flames back towards the houses. And they’ve made a lot of headway.

Evacuation orders issued last Thursday have been downgraded for the majority of area residents and, said Gruber, the fire head is well away from any structures. As of yesterday, only 35 of the 1,100 people evacuated due to the fire were still out of their homes. No structures were damaged by the fire.

The majority of the remaining evacuees live along Philpott Road, where firefighters have set up special water sprinklers outside homes to raise the humidity level as a precaution in case the fire turns back towards the houses.

Each home with a sprinkler is marked with blue tape on the gatepost. The sprinklers, hoses, and water bladders are part of a semi-truck full of fire suppression equipment for structural firefighting provided by the Office of the B.C. Fire Commissioner. It is parked at the Joe Rich Fire Hall and is one of four similar trucks the fire commissioner’s office has in B.C. to help rural fire departments in emergencies.

During the height of the fire, some houses were just a kilometre from the flames.

Outside the Joe Rich area, BC Wildfire crews have also gained ground in the fight against the Philpott Road fire, with 30 per cent containment achieved with the fire holding at 460 hectares in size.

Gruber, who is also a safety officer for the fire department, said one of the biggest challenges department commanders have is helping manage the adrenaline level of the paid on-call firefighters. He said, often, firefighters zoom in on the task at hand when they arrive at a big fire and can get tunnel vision, and it’s command’s job to look at the larger picture.

On Thursday, the Capital News was taken on a tour along the closed Philpott Road where it’s evident by the amount of burned forest alongside the road,the fire was extensive. Burned areas also extend down to the side of Highway 33 below Philpott Road in some places.

Gruber, an electrician by trade who has been away from his regular job while helping fight the fire, said it’s clear to see from the charred forest that the flames were moving very quickly during the height of the blaze.

Meanwhile residents are reminded of an updated area restriction for all Crown land in the vicinity of the Philpott wildfire that came into effect at noon Wednesday.

Under the area restriction order and Section 11(2) of the Wildfire Act, a person must not remain in or enter the Philpott Road/Highway 33 wildfire restricted area without the prior written authorization of an official designated for the purposes of the Wildfire Act, unless the person enters the area only in the course of:

1. travelling to or from his or her principal residence that is not under an evacuation order;

2. travelling to or from leased property for the purpose of accessing a secondary residence or recreational property;

3. travelling as a person acting in an official capacity; and

4. travelling for the purpose of supporting wildfire suppression activities.

Gruber said police road blocks have been set up at both ends of Philpott Road because some people were caught going back in the evacuated area via the back way after the evacuation order was made and it is not safe to be there.

For more on this story, including a video of the scene, go to www.kelownacapnews.com.