Ari Neault and Rob Colbert from the Topley Volunteer Fire Department direct water to a hot spot while on duty in August in the Lake Country area just outside Kelowna. (Photo courtesy Topley Volunteer Fire Department)

Ari Neault and Rob Colbert from the Topley Volunteer Fire Department direct water to a hot spot while on duty in August in the Lake Country area just outside Kelowna. (Photo courtesy Topley Volunteer Fire Department)

“We scrambled up hills and down hills”

Topley crew helps battle Okanagan fire

It’s an experience the four members of the Topley Volunteer Fire Department who spent five days with hundreds of other firefighters battling the massive blaze threatening parts of Lake Country just outside of Kelowna will never forget.

Using the department’s Engine 11 fire truck, assistant chief Glenn Kelly, Rob Colbert, Chris Lohn and Ari Neault patrolled evacuated neighbourhoods and put out hot spots.

“It was very eerie to be driving through the streets, not a single soul in these big, beautiful homes,” said Kelly of the first day’s assignment.

The job was to remove anything flammable from up against the outside walls of homes should flames creep ever so closer.

“Gas cans, propane tanks … moving them out into the center of their lawn or into the driveway,” recounted Kelly. “Removing shrubbery that was up against the side of a house, firewood … anything like that.”

That duty served as a reminder that people should check into provincial programs such as Fire Smart B.C. to secure their own homes against the threat of fire, Kelly added.

The Topley crew was not alone. As the crew worked its way up one side of the street, a crew from Thornhill worked its way up the other side of the street.

The crew’s next assignment was putting out any hot spots within 50 feet of homes, a task made possible by Engine 11’s capacity to carry 1000 gallons of water.

“We went up hills, we went down hills. Literally, I mean like Billy goats, hauling hoses up and down. It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, period. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that, scrambling up hills and down hills,” said Kelly.

He described the experience as humbling. “We’re protecting people’s properties. We don’t even know, never met them and we’ll never meet them. We’re just doing the absolute best job we can,” Kelly continued.

As the crew worked, they could see the magnitude of the suppression effort going on around them not only in Lake Country but across the lake in West Kelowna. Helicopters and water bombers filled the air.

“The amount of fire trucks was staggering. There were fire trucks from everywhere you could think of,” said Kelly.

Fire trucks, water tender vehicles and BC Wildfire vehicles and equipment each had their own marshalling areas.

“It was a professionally-run operation. You had taskforce leaders who gave you your assignments. They travelled around while we were doing our jobs, making sure things were OK,” said Kelly.

The dorms at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus just off of Hwy. 97 near the Kelowna airport served as the home base for firefighters.

Meals came via the Salvation Army’s mobile kitchens staffed by other volunteers.

“It was incredible how another group of volunteers, because that was what the Salvation Army people were, volunteers, just started feeding people. Incredible. The food was incredible,” Kelly recalled.

“We had long days, sometimes 14 hours. We’d come back, thinking maybe we could get a cup of coffee and the [Salvation Army] guy says ‘we got steak. Or we got salmon. Or you can have both’,” he added.

Returning from a long shift one day, the Topley crew went to the local Walmart to pick up some things.

“We’re dirty. We’re filthy. But every time we turned around people were saying thank you. It was great to have that kind of response. Unbelievable to experience that,” said Kelly.

He said people should not be surprised that crews from as far away as Topley were called down to the Okanagan.

Fire departments around the province register their equipment with the BC Wildfire Service and as equipment is needed, calls are made.

For the Topley Volunteer Fire Department, the call came on Friday, Aug. 18 and the four-member crew assembled the next morning for the one-day trip south. In all, the crew spent five days in the Okanagan.

At 68, Kelly was the oldest of the four and Ari Neault at 18 was the youngest.