The 2003 fire season was one of the most catastrophic in British Columbia’s recorded history. Due to an extended drought in the southern half of the province, forest firefighters faced conditions never seen before in Canada. Lightning strikes, human carelessness, and arson all contributed to igniting nearly 2,500 fires involving more than 10,000 firefighters and support personnel and burning more than 265,000 hectares at a cost of $375 million.
The extreme volatility of the dry forests, compounded by the province’s difficult terrain, created unprecedented fire behaviour, and made fire suppression almost impossible.
Tragically, two air tanker crew members and a helicopter pilot lost their lives while fighting the fires in British Columbia: Ian MacKay, Eric Ebert, and Bernhard Georg Freiherr “Ben” von Hardenberg.
On Wednesday, July 30, 2003, the careless discarding of a cigarette butt by McLure resident Mike Barrie, into dry pine needles and withered grass, began a nightmare for those who lived in the North Thompson Valley. What witnesses say started as a small wisp of smoke, quickly ignited, and then took off like a rocket up the west hillside behind the property, which was situated close to the McLure Restaurant.
The McLure fire was reported to the BC Forest Service at 1:02 p.m. Crews and air-tankers were dispatched within 22 minutes. Machinery followed within the second half hour. The fire spread up the hill, grew from half a hectare to six hectares in under an hour and three-quarters, and challenged the retardant lines. Within the next 15 minutes, the fire was reported at 10 to 12 hectares.
By 4:16 p.m. it was reported at 30 hectares, with very aggressive behaviour on all perimeters. The retardant line on the top of the slope was holding at this point. The fire was occasionally torching trees, and the wind was throwing debris over the line to start spot fires.
Airtankers continued to work until nightfall. Resources on the fire for that day reported; air-tankers dropped a total of 400,000 litres of retardant, 87 firefighters were on site (45 of which worked through the night), four helicopters, five bulldozers, two excavators, and three water trucks working with the McLure Fire Department. At the end of the day the fire size was estimated at 195 hectares.
The following day (Thursday, July 31), crews, air tankers, helicopters and heavy equipment worked the fire to establish and reinforce control lines. At 7 p.m., the fire started to move downhill toward Highway 5. Fire behaviour at this point was Rank 6, with trees fully engulfed in flames from the base to the tip and fire balls forming above the tree tops. Crews were unable to work the fire directly due to dangerous conditions. Burnoff action was undertaken from the power line with air tanker support to protect the homes. At 9:30 p.m., the fire jumped the North Thompson River from east to west. Resources on the fire on July 31 were; 100 firefighters (with 45 persons working the fire overnight), four helicopters, nine bulldozers, two excavators, and five water trucks with the McLure and Barriere Fire Departments.
On Friday, Aug. 1, the fire intensity in the morning was moderate to high, with tree-candling threatening ground crews and the communities of Exlou, Louis Creek, and Barriere to the north. The fire became extremely active on both sides of the North Thompson River in the afternoon. Equipment and crews were pulled back from the fire line to ensure their safety. By 2:30 p.m., some structures were already lost. The Rank 6 fire became a firestorm by creating its own wind, pulling in more oxygen and burning hotter. By 3 p.m., helicopters could no longer work the fire due to heat and wind. Ground crews continued to work the fire with fire engines and water trucks.
By 3:50 p.m., the fire was beyond available resources and the crews were pulled out. One Ministry of Forests unit crew was forced to wait out the firestorm in a safe zone until the danger passed. At about 4 p.m., the fire jumped the North Thompson from west to east, setting the Tolko – Louis Creek sawmill on fire. The heat of the mill burning pulled the east fire off the ridge and down into the river bottom. At about 5:30 p.m., the Tolko mill manager ordered firefighters out, due to two one-million liter tanks of propane on site. Crews were pulled back to Barriere to establish a line of defense, but those lines were overrun before they were completed. The fire on the east and west side of the river moved fast, with an estimated rate of spread of 80 meters per minute, with fire spotting one to 1.5 kilometers ahead of the fire front. Late in the evening of August 1, the fire jumped the North Thompson River again. The fire had grown to 6,600 hectares.
During the night the fire snaked around Barriere, and the fire fighters who had retreated the night before moved back in the early morning hours of Aug. 1, and took up the battle once again. The Barriere Fire Department, Forestry, and numerous determined volunteers kept the flames from crossing the fire guards they had built, and continued to build as the fire travelled on its unpredictable course. The fire was now over 8,000 hectares and had travelled to the Bonaparte Plateau, threatening to run all the way to Little Fort which was also evacuated. Fire crews and air tankers battled to save 14 houses on Agate Bay Road, just north east of Louis Creek.
By August 5, the fire no longer was a threat to Barriere and its adjacent communities, however, hot spots continued to flare-up throughout the path of its initial destruction. The evacuation order was lifted on August 8. The fire was not officially declared contained until August 31.
The McLure fire caused the devastating loss or damage of 72 homes and nine businesses in the Lower North Thompson Valley. Due to this fire, 3,800 people were evacuated (880 of these people were also evacuated for a second time) from the small communities of McLure, Exlou, Barriere and Louis Creek. The fire reached a final size of 26,420 hectares.
It Took A Combined Effort To Save The North Thompson Valley.
The Barriere, McLure, Chu Chua, and Clearwater Volunteer Fire Departments, along with the Ministry of Forests initially fought the fire. Due to the voracity of the flames, the speed of the fire’s growth, and the threat to human life and property, numerous other fire departments from throughout British Columbia and Alberta responded to the emergency and arrived to help. Air support included nine bird dogs, four water bombers, 24 air tankers, and 12 helicopters. People and heavy machinery arrived constantly to lend assistance. They were followed by 400 members of the Canadian Military who set up camp at the Fall Fair Grounds in Barriere. The camp later grew to 800.
The McLure Ferry, the only escape route for many when Highway 5 was closed, operated 24/7 during the fire, moving evacuated residents, livestock, firefighters, police, forestry personnel, the military, heavy equipment, and more. This small reaction ferry and its dedicated operators made upwards of 100 trips a day across the North Thompson River during the height of the emergency.
An excerpt from the poem Footprints of the Dragon, by Kevin Deckert, Avola, B.C., says, “We will never know all their names, yet their footprints and their actions will be retold many a time in the days and years to come … to deeply thank those whose names we may never know – whose courage and selflessness faced a dragon. Such is the stuff of legend. Such is the page that history will mark as the summer of 2003.”