A row of shiny fire trucks lines the fields in front of the Williams Lake curling rink. Oyster Bay, New Westminster, Salt Spring Island and, behind them all, a trailer with the Surrey Fire Service logo.
The Surrey crew has been here for almost a month, said assistant fire chief Chris Keon.
“We were sent to Williams Lake to assist the Williams Lake Fire Department in protecting the town against wildfire threats,” Keon said Wednesday afternoon. “Since then, the threat has subsided a bit.”
Williams Lake itself was under evacuation order for two weeks in July. The order was downgraded to an alert on July 27 but the air remains filled with smoke and the city smells like a particularly pungent campfire.
Surrey Fire Service assistant fire chief Chris Keon speaks with Williams Lake resident Woody Winkelmann about the firefighting efforts. Katya Slepian/Black Press.
On a good day, you can see the surrounding mountains. On a bad one, it’s just all one big hazy blur.
Williams Lake remains surrounded by aggressive wildfires; as of mid-week, the Wildwood fire sat at 12,684 hectares and the White Lake fire at 13,192 hectares. Smaller fires of several thousand hectares, like the Prouton Lake fire 40 kilometres northeast of the city, still threaten dozens of homes in the Cariboo.
Although the fires have subsided somewhat, officials warn that they could flare up again at any moment. Dozens of homes in and around town have loaded cargo trailers sitting in the yards, ready to evacuate again.
The Surrey fire crew, comprising Keon and Geoff McIntyre, is manning the mobile command unit: basically, a mini fire hall on wheels that they can hitch onto a semi.
The mobile command unit set up at the Williams Lake curling rink. Katya Slepian/Black Press.
“We can hook it up and move it at a moment’s notice, if it is threatened, and set it up elsewhere,” Keon said, noting it’s stocked with satellite phones and radio communications tools – key tools out in rural interior B.C., where leaving town can also mean leaving cell range.
“We’ve used it primarily for tracking our crews and for filling out time-sheets and different documentation.”
But they, and the rest of the fire departments – from Delta to Langley to Abbotsford – didn’t come up to Williams Lake to fill out paperwork.
They run the structural protection units brought in from Ontario last month to help wet down the homes near the wildfires.
“The fire threat was coming from a place called Soda Creek Road,” said Keon. “So from the start we’ve been out there helping the sprinkler units deploy the (apparatus) and put them around different homes that are up that road.”
Firefighters set up sprinkler protection units in the Cariboo. Angie Mindus photo.
The structural protection teams, Keon said, are run through the Office of the Fire Commissioner, who will deploy them across B.C. as needed. These, however, are from Ontario, sent to help with B.C.’s second worst wildfire season in recorded history.
They didn’t get to all the homes; in 150 Mile House, just outside of Williams Lake, police tape surrounds a burned-out car and what looks like lawn chair remnants sitting in a charred clearing.
A burnt out car and leftover furniture litter a fire-ravaged lot in 150 Mile House. Katya Slepian/Black Press.
But for now, it’s back home for at least the Surrey duo. Keon and McIntyre are leaving as of today (Thursday).
“The Wildwood fires fell short and didn’t threaten the city in the way they thought they might,” said Keon. “The rest of the [firefighting] task force is demobilizing in the next couple of days.”