Huckleberry fire fight a combined effort from CORD and BC Wildfire Service

Joe Rich Fire Department key to saving structures while wildfire service says fire was started by humans

  • Jul. 7, 2015 2:00 p.m.

When Joe Rich resident Lisa Metz takes her garbage and recycling down to the road to be picked up—in her case its Highway 33 just outside of Kelowna—its not uncommon for her to see tossed out cigarette butts lining the ditch of the highway.

So on Friday afternoon, while she was at work, it wasn’t a huge surprise to hear that there was a forest fire burning near her house, located just off Highway 33.

“When we take the garbage cans down you can see the cigarette butts scattered all along the highway,” said Metz on Monday, back in her home after spending three nights evacuated. “And it’s not just one or two. It’s unbelievable how disrespectful people can be. But what do you do? Put a sign up saying ‘we have our family living here, please don’t throw your butts out?'”

While B.C. Wildfire officials continue to investigate the cause of the Joe Rich fire, they have only confirmed it was started by humans with speculation putting the blame on an errant cigarette butt.

Crews from the Ministry of Forests are continuing to work on the mop-up stages at the scene of what was a 55 hectare fire that began quickly on Friday afternoon, racing from zero to its ultimate size in just a few hours. Dozens of firefighters will continue to work the blaze area for the next few weeks, hosing down hot spots and digging out roots that may still be burning. Ultimately the area will be scanned from the air to see if hot spots remain before crews are cleared from the zone.

As Metz and other area residents were returning home to survey the damage, if any, charred smoke smell filled the air both outside and inside the Metz’ household. There were 142 homes evacuated during the blaze and more on evacuation alert. Luckily no structures were lost thanks to the combined work of the fire crews from the B.C. Wildfire Service as well as the Joe Rich Fire Department, which was first on the scene and worked to keep structures safe while forestry crews attacked the blaze from the ground and the air.

In total firefighters 60 firefighters from the B.C. Wildfire Service, along with eight air tankers and several helicopters worked the blaze on Friday, trying to stop its advance.

At the Metz household, just a stone’s throw to the highway, the fire burned up from the highway and all around the house but was kept off the main household and several outbuildings before continuing its run up the hills.

“I don’t know how they did it but they saved everything,” she said. “They did a fabulous job. I was at work and saw pictures online and thought ‘that is my lawn.’ There were firefighters on our roof spraying everything down. We were shocked that all of this was burning but our house was still standing.”

As Metz surveyed the burned areas around her house Monday, a crew of 30 continued to work the fire from the perimeter in making sure nothing could flare up. After sparking up Friday afternoon, the fire quickly grew to its maximum size and wasn’t full contained until Sunday morning. Crews worked 24-7 on the blaze throughout the weekend.

During those first couple of hours on Friday, as the Joe Rich fire hall worked to save any structures, initial attack crews from the B.C. Wildfire Service jumped on the blaze, digging trenches along the outskirts of fire zone as it went up the steep hills of the area. Crews used the highway as the one fire guard while the first initial attack crews split in two and started working up each side of the perimeter.

“The initial attack guys did a great job,” said Wayne Price, who’s Okanagan-based crew remained on scene Monday. “That’s a tough job because they’re digging trenches in a hurry. They did phenomenal work.”

As the fire continued to burn into the late afternoon Friday, air support came in and hammered the flames down, supporting the ground crews. Crews continued to work through the night Friday to make sure it didn’t escape the perimeter. Some evacuees were allowed to return on the weekend while the final evacuation alert was lifted Monday.

For Metz, who never got the chance to return home while the fire was burning and instead stayed in a hotel with her family after being evacuated, her weekend was filled with thoughts of losing valuables but thankful that her family was safe.

“We weren’t injured but it was just the photos and the memorabilia and the things that the kids made,” she said, noting that her seven-year-old was frightened and had a hard time seeing his home so close to the burn area when they returned. “We enjoy living here. It’s very peaceful and quiet and a nice area to live in. I don’t think we will pick up and relocate but we might do some things differently to be more prepared.”

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