A number of homes have been destroyed by a wildfire that started in the ʔaq̓am community northeast of Cranbrook, while much of the area remains under an evacuation order or alert, according to local officials who provided an update on Wednesday afternoon (July 19).
In an emotional press conference at the ʔaq̓am community administration office, Nasuʔkin Joe Pierre Jr. described the evacuation efforts on Monday, while fire and emergency management officials provided a timeline on the wildfire’s growth and response activity.
Approximately 95 per cent of area properties are either evacuated or under and evacuation alert, while the seven dwelling units that were burned by wildfire represent nearly 10 per cent of the homes in the community, according to Pierre.
“It is quite devastating and we do have folks that know and understand that their home is gone,” Pierre said.
The Red Cross is delivering the RDEK’s Emergency Support Services program to approximately 95 residents, which is expected to rise as more displaced community members seek support.
The fire began on Monday afternoon, as Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services was dispatched to a report of a small wildfire in the 5200 block of Mission-Wasa Lower Rd., according to Scott Driver, Director of Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services.
While en route, a secondary report from an aircraft updated the size of the fire, which initiated a larger response as more firefighting staff were called out on site.
Upon arrival, there was a downed power line and a fire burning in multiple directions driven by heavy winds, heading northeast on to the reserve lands, down towards the St. Mary’s River and up the hill.
A community member notified firefighters about another wildfire roughly two kilometres away as more downed power lines initially blocked access to other parts of the ʔaq̓am community lands.
While ʔaq̓am administration began calling affected residents to warn them, another community member was able to 4X4 through backroads into areas that were difficult to access in order to knock on doors.
“We are very thankful for those efforts because people are our first priority,” said Driver.
With the help of BC Hydro, firefighters were able to get passed the downed power lines an make entry past the hoodoos in order to make structural assessments and determine fire behaviour.
BC Wildfire Service personnel and Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services soon split up; the former working on forested areas to manage egress routes, while the latter focused on structure protection, anchoring at homes and fighting the fire using anything they could.
“We were able to save homes and we were able to get the community out really safely and that was our main goal,” Driver said.
When the fire first took off, the ʔaq̓am community placed 52 homes on evacuation order, while a further 10 homes on the reserve are on evacuation alert. Outside of the community lands, 33 homes are on evacuation alert, including Fort Steele Heritage Town.
The wildfire has grown to an estimated 850 hectares as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Daniel Klein, the incident commander with BC Wildfire Service.
Much of the growth has been towards the north away from the community and affected properties.
Klein says there are multiple pieces of heavy equipment on scene, which are working to push control lines up the west flank of the fire off the Upper Mission Rd, while also using existing roads and natural features to tie into the Kootenay River.
Significant ground resources are also on the east flank to ensure there’s no growth back towards the ʔaq̓am community.
Nearly 100 BC Wildfire Service personnel, from ground crews to contractors have been tasked to fire response. Additionally aircraft skimmers have been using Moyie Lake to load up, and boaters are asked to be aware of aircraft operating in the area.
Eventually, Klein noted that, weather and site conditions permitting, BC Wildfire Service may use planned ignitions to contain various flanks.
The fire has not jumped the south bank of the St. Mary’s River, however, Klein said the BC Wildfire Service and partners such as CP Rail are constantly monitoring the area and making sure there are resources available to respond if necessary.
How can people help?
Offers of help and assistance have been pouring into the ʔaq̓am community that has been close to overwhelming.
However, there are a number of agencies coordinating the gathering of donations, such as clothing and material as ʔaq̓am administration is taking the next few days to assess what’s needed in the short, medium and long term.
Anyone moved to donate financially can do so by directly contacting Ivan Winters, Director of Finance (firstname.lastname@example.org), as a number of GoFundMe crowdfunding scams have already popped up.
Pierre confirmed that there will not be a GoFundMe campaign in response to concerns about people inadvertently falling victim to a fake fundraiser.
Pierre also singled out Meant2bLoved, a local animal welfare non-profit that has been helping care for pets that were evacuated that need to be housed and cared for.