Last Wednesday, Fred Reid did a presentation and book signing for Captured By Fire: Surviving British Columbia’s New Wildfire Reality, at the downtown Kamloops Library. He had co-written the book with his friend, Chris Czajowski.
Reid and his wife Monica live deep in the Chilcotin wilderness; their land is situated in a valley where they farm and raise cattle. It was on July 7, 2017, when they saw distant smoke billowing into the sky, which was started by five lightning strikes southwest of them.
At the beginning of July, 97 wildfires had erupted in one day, most of them situated in the Chilcotin area.
“Monica and I were extremely pressured,” Reid recalled. “We had no idea how we would save our place if the fire came upon us, as it surely would be driven by the westerly-winds.”
The forestry crew who monitored the fires used Reid’s property as a staging area, where they landed helicopters that were watching the fires from above. Both Fred and Monica stayed involved in the communication amongst the crews, whether they were discussing safety requirements or where the helicopters were going to go that day, the couple found the details interesting.
Firefighters came to their property and helped install sprinklers and a pump to protect the buildings and structures. They had to remove any dry hay, fuel, wood, vehicles and gas cans from their sheds and move them to a meadow nearby.
On Aug. 3, 2017, almost a month after they saw the first fire, it began to take its charge towards their property. That day the humidity, wind and temperature reached the critical 30/30/30, meaning humidity was below 30 per cent, the temperatures were above 30°, and the wind picked up to 30km/hr.
“We couldn’t take our eyes off the wall of smoke and flames that were coming at us from the Northside of our valley,” Reid said.
The crews that had been working on their property were told to leave. They had reserved two seats for Fred and Monica on the last helicopter, but the Reid’s declined the offer, ready to stay behind to protect their property, animals and livelihoods.
After the crews had left, they feared not having the internal communication that came with the workers. Fred said it was scarier not knowing where the fire was, more than being able to see it.
When they could see them, Fred and Monica were very observant of the fires, not afraid to get close and watch as the small flames moved across the forest floor. Even when the fire was less than 30 metres from their property line, their fascination overtook their fear as they continued to watch it.
“What’s mostly shown on the news are the dramatic clouds of smoke up in the air,” Reid explained. “That’s not what we witnessed; what we saw was the creeping, pervasive nature of the fire, always on the ground, always looking for fuel.”
Soon, the firefighters arrived in their valley to fight the fires on the ground.
By the beginning of September, the fires had died down, though many fires in the Chilcotin area burned into the winter.
It was in October that Fred felt relief, believing the wildfire season was over in their valley.
The presentation concluded with Fred answering questions about his experience with the wildfire season. It was clear that many of the people in the audience had felt the same anxiety that Fred had felt, wondering if the fires would displace them and if this was the new normal for summers in B.C.