It was a storm of very short duration, but the brief thundershower that swept down the Lower Similkameen valley on Thursday afternoon, June 12, kept the Keremeos and District Volunteer Fire Department scrambling to keep up with three fires.
At this point, lightning appears to be the most reasonable explanation for the blazes, which began shortly before 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon. A storm cell that brought thunder, lightning and about a 15 minute downpour set the fire department in motion to the first call, which was easily identified as a lightning strike, on the upper elevation of a mountain in the Ashnola valley.
Forestry officials were called to contend with that blaze, but shortly after members returned to the firehall, a second call out had the KDVFD responding to a brush fire in the Willis Ranch Road area, at approximately 3:45 p.m. The fire was burning in scrap brush, tree limbs and tall grass alongside a fenced off farmers field.
Fire crews were still at work when the third call came for a fire in the T.L. Timber log yard in Cawston.
There, firefighters were faced with a large log deck that was fully ablaze. T.L. Timber had a crew already working the fire, as nearby neighbours and other community members saw the smoke and jumped in to help.
“It was a real community effort,” said T.L.Timber Operations Manager Clayton Hillman. He said the fire began in a small log deck adjacent to a larger one. He had just returned from a road trip and was sitting down to supper around 5 p.m. when a passing motorist stopped to him of the fire.
“I can’t say enough about the response we had,” Hillman said, “Neighbours, staff and friends, our logging company staff, our own staff, everyone stepped forward to help.”
In spite of the initial efforts, the fire eventually spread to three log decks. Crews spent nearly six hours on site, their efforts aided by intermittent rain that became steady as the evening wore on.
“We have lots of fire fighting capacity here,” Hilman said, “ we’ve got water trucks, hoses, pumps, access to Keremeos Creek (adjacent to the property) – but it was a slow job. The fire had gotten into the middle of the decks, and they all had to be pulled apart, each log given a good soaking.”
Hilman called the incident “most bizarre,” as neither he nor his family saw lightning or heard thunder anytime prior to notification of the fire. The decks were located in the centre of the yard, roughly 30 – 40 metres from the highway, and no one had been working in that vicinity all afternoon.
The Keremeos fire department had all available personnel suited up Thursday evening. A truck and several personnel from Osoyoos were also called in to provide mutual aid. Later in the evening, as crews gained an upper hand, a small mop up crew returned to the Willis Ranch Road area to finish up there.
The Keremeos fire department has been dealing with some unusual instances of coincidental calls in recent months.
In late November last year, through February of this year, the department responded to a number of consecutive structure fires. Later in February, a string of motor vehicle accidents occurred. Finally, in the past two weeks, the department has answered four calls for lightning related fires, a circumstance that, while not unprecedented, is unusual.