By Steve Hubrecht

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A trio of Columbia Valley residents were rescued off the top of Mount Bruce last week after they were stranded by the rapid outbreak of the Horsethief Creek wildfire.

Sage Randle, Ida von Huth Smith and Malte Hjortkjaer left to hike Mount Bruce on the morning of Monday, July 24. After driving up the long winding logging road to the trailhead, they started up the trail under crystal clear blue skies at about 11:30 a.m.

The three made their way quickly up the short but steep hike, arriving at the summit cairn about an hour to 1.5 hours after setting out. They sat at the top for 30 minutes or so, eating lunch and enjoying the panoramic views over the valley bottom below.

They turned and began down the trail, but as they made their way along the summit plateau they saw a small, barely noticeable plume of smoke rising up from beyond the edge of plateau, seemingly coming from the north slope of Mount Bruce, right where the hiking trail is.

“At first we weren’t sure what it was. We thought it might be a dust storm,” Randle told the Pioneer. “But within 10 minutes it went from ‘what is this?’ to ‘holy, it’s a fire and it’s huge’.

The fire continued to grow rapidly, with the smoke cloud mushrooming before their eyes. There was no question of trying to go down the trail.

“At first I didn’t know what to do. How serious was our situation? I really didn’t want to be the kind of person that calls 911 when you really don’t need to. So I tried calling two other people in town to see if they knew what was happening. But neither one answered.”

So Randle began to dial 911 and to explain the situation. But before she had a chance to finish describing the group’s predicament, a private helicopter belonging to Glacier Helicopters circled in close. The group waved for help. 

“They (the helicopter pilot and passenger) later explained they had been out checking something else, another wildfire I think. They spotted the fire on Mount Bruce and our car, and they came to see if we needed help,” said Randle.

The pilot and his passenger — a wildfire professional — landed on top of Mount Bruce, and helped get the three hikers into the helicopter. They told the trio they could take them back to Invermere, or back to their car. As the helicopter flew down and Randle got a glimpse of the blaze, she was stunned at how swiftly and fiercely the flames and smoke expanded.

“They said they figured that the fire wouldn’t reach our car for at least another 10 minutes. I began to think about how I am the only person in my house with a car, and how if there is an evacuation order we might really need the car. So we asked to go back to the car,” said Randle.

After dropping the hikers off, the helicopter pilot remained hovering above the car for some time, making sure it got safely down the road. The trio drove down, keeping a wary eye on the flames and smoke further up the slope, returning back to Invermere as hastily as they could. 

“I was so relieved, first to see the helicopter, and then to get back to town. It was quite a day,” said Randle.

She later posted the videos and photos she’d taken on her Instagram account and Facebook page. The next day she returned to work (at Valhalla Pure Outfitters) and found her posts had turned her into an overnight social media celebrity.

“I kept getting messages from national news organizations wanting to talk to me, and my parents had been getting all kinds of messages too. It was pretty crazy,” said Randle.