The Columbia Valley nearly got away with a wildfire-smoke free summer. Nearly.

A much wetter than usual spring and early summer has left the valley looking greener than it does most summers and had helped keep wildfires at bay, a real treat for residents and visitors who remember all too well the smoky, hazy skies that seemed to last all summer in 2017 and then again in 2018. Last summer was wet with few fires, and this year had been mostly the same. However the past month saw bit of a local heat wave, and late last week two wildfires started in the south end of the valley.

The Kootenay River fire near Wasa, which drivers can see from Highway 93/95 and which resident can see from the community of Wasa, was discovered on Tuesday August 18th, and saw the British Columbia Wildfire Services respond with crews and air tankers. By late last week, crews had that fire under control and contained to only 4.9 hectares in size.

Much larger, and much closer to the Columbia Valley, the Doctor Creek fire was also discovered on Tuesday, August 18th, 25 kilometres southwest of Canal Flats. It was initially estimated to be 150 hectares, but grew rapidly, prompting the Regional District of East Kootenay to issue an evacuation order on Wednesday, August 19th for 10 properties in the Findlay Creek area (including the Whitetail Lake and Blue Lake areas). By late Wednesday thick smoke was hanging over Canal Flats (see cover photos) and was clouding skies up in Invermere and Radium. By the end of last week skies were clear and blue, but the fire had increased to an estimated size of 3,000 hectares and is now designated as an official “wildfire of note”.

B.C. Southeast Fire Centre fire information officer Kim Wright told the Pioneer on Friday, August 21st. that the size of the fire is “likely” to grow because the 3,000 hectare size was only an estimate, and that accurate perimeter mapping of the fire was not yet complete.

“This is an aggressive fire,” said Wright, adding it is “displaying aggressive fire behaviour due to the dryness of the (forest fire) fuels in the area.”

On Friday, a crew of 40 firefighters was battling the blaze along with several aircraft and heavy equipment such as bull dozers and excavators. Wright added that lightning is the suspected cause of the fire.

By the next week, on Monday, August 24th, the number of firefighters working on the Doctor Creek blaze had jumped to more than 80 and there were five pieces of heavy machinery and seven helicopters in action. Perimeter mapping was complete, and the fire was listed as 3,071 hectares in size. A lack of strong winds over the weekend combined with the efforts of the firefighters had kept the raging wildfire from growing over the weekend.

“The crews are making good progress, but there remains quite a lot of work before we will be able to get the fire out. It’s a really large fire,” B.C. Southeast Fire Centre fire information officer Jody Lucius told the Pioneer on Monday, August 24th.

Doctor Creek Fire as seen from Canal Flats on Wednesday, August 19th. Photo by Holly Holubec