Evacuation orders for 16 homes in the ʔaq’am community have been downgraded to evacuation alerts as residents of those properties can return home though the St. Mary’s River wildfire continues to challenge fire crews in the northeast part of the perimeter.
“The Evacuation Order for a portion of Mission Road has been partially rescinded, which will allow residents in 16 homes to be able to go home,” says ʔaq̓am Nasuʔkin (Chief) Joe Pierre.
While those orders are rescinded, the same properties will remain on alert and residents should prepared to leave if conditions worsen.
“We are supporting our community members with the re-entry process, and while this is an exciting time for all those who can return home, we know it comes with mixed emotions as friends and neighbours have lost homes and others remain on Evacuation Order and are not able to go home yet,” adds Pierre.
Currently, there are 36 homes that remain on evacuation order and 25 remain on alert.
A total of seven homes were lost from the wildfire. ʔaq’am leadership were able to take the families who lost their homes in to see their properties and are also working on escorted entry for residents who remain on evacuation order so they can get essential personal items as conditions safely permit.
“We are overwhelmed with the offers of support and we are still working to get a full grasp on what will be needed. For those wanting to help, we would ask that you hold onto donations until we have had an opportunity to narrow down our community’s needs. Financial donations are being accepted directly through ʔaq’am Administration and Ivan Winter at email@example.com,” says Pierre.
“We remain deeply grateful for the incredible efforts of all those who are working so hard on this fire – from the exhaustive efforts on the front lines to the people working in the background to support in any way they can. While this has been an immensely trying time in our community, the incredible cooperation and support will be forever remembered.”
Current wildfire status
As of Monday morning, the fire is mapped at approximately 4,000 hectares.
All control lines held overnight Sunday, while fire activity remains stable as a smouldering ground fire with pockets of visible flame.
Small hand ignitions were completed successfully to help reinforce those lines, while danger tree assessing and falling helps maintain safe access and egress for fire crews and equipment.
Firefighters are also putting out hot spots as they are discovered and patrolling the fire perimeter, including working overnight on reinforcing control lines and mop up.
Current resources tasked to the fire include 232 personnel such as BC Wildfire Service personnel, contract crews, single resources and structure protection personnel. Eight helicopters are assigned for air support, while 16 pieces of heavy equipment are also working at the site.
The wildfire timeline
The wildfire began in the afternoon of July 17, as Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services were 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.
Over the following week, the fire quickly grew to over 40 square kilometres, driven by winds and tinder-dry conditions. Air tankers were highly visible in the skies, dropping water and fire retardant as weather conditions allowed.
By late Friday, the fire had spotted across the Kootenay River, sparking up a section of Bummer’s Flats that was quickly actioned by BC Wildfire Service ground crews and aircraft.
The northeast section of the fire remains challenging during peak burning periods in the late afternoon and early evening.
By the weekend, evacuation orders and alerts were expanded to include properties in the ʔaq̓am community and beyond.
The RDEK has an active evacuation order for 15 properties the Woods Corner east area, while elsewhere around the wildfire, hundreds of homes remain on evacuation alert, which includes the Canadian Rockies International Airport and Fort Steele Heritage Town.
Other areas under evacuation alert include the east section Woods Corner and areas around the McGinty Rd, Clearview Rd, Old Airport and Ta Ta Creek Rd. South of the St. Mary’s River, an evacuation alert have been issued for the Campsall Rd. area, as well as the Lakit Lake and greater Wasa area east of the Kootenay River.