Evacuation order downsized, alert rescinded

By Steve Hubrecht

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Some Toby Benches residents have been able to go home, and other Columbia Valley residents have been able to breathe a little easier after the evacuation order stemming from the Horsethief Creek was recently decreased in size, and the evacuation alert for surrounding areas was rescinded.

But the wildfire — which is just 10 kilometres west of Invermere and seven kilometres north of Panorama and is very visible from most parts of the Columbia Valley — will continue to burn for weeks, unless some rain materializes, say firefighting officials.

The Horsethief Creek fire began burning on Monday, July 24 and prompted an evacuation order that included 27 properties in the Horsethief Creek area, including Bear Mountain Area, Lake Enid and the westernmost parts of the Toby Benches. A related evacuation alert was issued for the rest of the Toby Benches, Lake Lillian, Mount Forster, Westside Road between Radium Hot Springs and Invermere and Panorama Mountain Resort, which included 1,041 properties.

On Sunday, July 30 the evacuation alert covering those 1,041 properties was rescinded. And for 26 out of the 27 properties under evacuation order, the order was downgraded to an alert. A solitary dwelling remains under evacuation order.

The Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) noted on Sunday, July 30 that cooperative weather over several days had resulted in reduced wildfire activity, allowing wildland firefighters to make “good progress” in battling the blaze.

The RDEK was quick to add, however, that the Horsethief Creek wildfire remains active.

“It is important for people within the evacuation alert area to remember that they should stay prepared and be ready to leave on a moment’s notice should conditions change and an order needs to be re-issued,” said regional emergency operations centre director Christina Carbrein a press release.

The Horsethief Creek fire remains mapped at 1,020 hectares in size and firefighters are continuing to use direct, parallel and indirect fire suppression methods on the fire’s perimeter to establish control and contingency lines.  

At total of 116 firefighters were involved in the battling the Horsethief Creek fire and two other nearby wildfires — the Yearling Creek fires and Mia Creek fire — for the first week they were burning, including more than 40 Interagency Hotshot Crew wildland firefighters from south of the border. The elite Hotshot firefighters were working on the Horsethief Creek, Yearling Creek and Mia Creek fires until Monday, July 31. 

As of Pioneer press deadline on Tuesday, Aug. 1, a total of 73 firefighters remain working on the three fires (which are collectively known as the Horsethief Complex) along with 10 helicopters and 11 pieces of heavy equipment. 

On Monday, July 31 multiple Invermere residents called the Pioneer, saying that smoke plumes were more visible from town that they has been previously. In addition on July 31, the Pioneer received several calls from residents in both Invermere and Radium reporting ash flakes from the fire floating down in those communities. 

Horsethief Complex incident commander Tom Flanagan posted a video update on Monday July 31 taking viewers on a fly over of the Horsethief Creek wildfire. 

“Our initial response was to contain to the east (the direction of the Toby Benches and Lake Lillian) and to the north side (the direction of Horsethief Forest Service Road) of the complex,” said Flanagan in the video. “We did this by putting in (a) handline using existing road and machine guards, using some hand ignitions to bring the fire to the guard lines.”

This was all in an effort to tie off the fire, and in so doing to protect the heavily populated areas to the east (including the areas subject to the evacuation order and alert, as well as Invermere).   

Flanagan explained that the on the night of Sunday, July 30, on the west side of the blaze, the fire jumped and ran uphill on the western slope of Mount Bruce.

“It’s just a continuous stream of (forest) fuels with no other value than just timber,” he said, as the video shows footage of the forested western slope of Mount Bruce burning. 

On the eastern flank of the fire “the higher we go, you start to run into much smaller (forest) fuel type, sparser (forest) fuels all the way up to the rocks to the north,” said Flanagan.

Panorama Mountain Resort is located to the south of the fire “and with our incoming forecast of strictly south winds, at this time there is no threat to Panorama or the village,” he adds.

The fire will be burning for weeks to come, outlined Flanagan. 

“Communities over the next few weeks definitely will see continuous smoke,” he said.

If there is a temperature inversion (which is not uncommon in the Columbia Valley in late summer and early fall) low-lying smoke in the morning could well be present, outlined Flanagan.

“This (the wildfire and the smoke) is going to be (a) natural part of our environment for the next several weeks until we get some weather (sustained rain or other precipitation),” concluded Flanagan. 

The Yearling Creek fire is estimated at 1,304 hecatres in size, and Nipika Mountain Resort and the Cross River Canyon Recreation Site, Cross River Education and Retreat Centre and Cross Rive Forest Service Road remain under evacuation order as a result of that fire.

The Mia Creek fire is estimated at 881 hectares in size.

For the latest status of all wildfires in BC, visit www.bcwildfire.ca.