By David Gordon Koch
Campbell River Mirror
Smoke billowed from the steep hillsides of Zeballos on Friday evening, as a heavy helicopter dumped buckets of water onto wildfires that had reached within a few hundred metres of local homes.
Authorities are trying to prevent homes from burning as they contemplate an evacuation order for the tiny coastal town.
“Our main focus is preventing any structures from burning,” said Dean Neville, the BC Wildfire Service incident commander, as he made his way through the town in a truck on Friday.
Steep hillsides made the fire largely inaccessible for crews, due to the danger of falling trees and rocks rolling down the steep hillsides, he said.
With the fires in close proximity to local homes, structural protection firefighters were on site, and a specialist in structural protection was coming in from Comox.
Just before stepping into a helicopter for a reconnaissance flight, Neville said that authorities were trying to determine “trigger points”: thresholds for ordering an evacuation.
The town was placed on an evacuation alert on Thursday, partly because of a larger fire burning along the Zeballos Mainline, the only access road.
“That’s the only escape route for these people,” said Neville. He noted that fires were burning 300 metres from houses in town, and said the fire was about 90 hectares in size.
As for resources on-site, there was a four-person team from Port McNeill’s fire department on hand, along with a five-person crew from Strategic Wildfire, a private contractor. There were two helicopters bucketing the flames, along with the structural protection unit.
The crew from Strategic Wildfire on Friday watered down areas surrounding buildings and removed heavy brush, which could otherwise serve as fuel and impede access for firefighters.
Those measures were meant to guard against fires caused by burning debris falling from the hillsides.
“You can’t count the number of trees that are falling,” said Braydon Williams, a forestry engineer with Strategic, as he drove across the one-lane bridge that now serves as the town’s only access point.
Falling debris closed the other road earlier this week; both routes lead to the Zeballos Mainline, which is threatened by a fire at Pinder Creek.
No evacuation order is in place, but an evacuation alert issued Thursday requires people to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.
In a town of just over 100 people, “less than 20” had already evacuated their homes by Friday, said public works foreman Ryan Foster.
But many residents of the neighbouring Ehattesaht First Nation reserve had chosen to leave, even though the reserve isn’t under the evacuation alert: it’s separated from the fires by the Zeballos River.
Ernie Smith, who lives in Zeballos and Campbell River, said he’s worried the fire will destroy the home he built with his two sons about five years ago.
“We don’t want to see our home burned down after all the hard work we put into it,” he said.
Smith said the situation could have been avoided if authorities had acted sooner on a smaller blaze when it flared up almost a week ago.
“If they concentrated on that little fire a long time ago, there wouldn’t be this big fire around us now,” he said as smoke billowed from the surrounding hillsides.
On the Zeballos Mainline logging road, helicopters were bucketing a fire that had grown to roughly 105 hectares.
The fire was burning in old-growth forest on inaccessible hillsides and in slash — the debris of logging operations — which serves as a powerful fuel.
“Slash is one of the most volatile fuel types we have on the coast,” said Dan Harris, incident commander for the Pinder Creek fire. The wood debris is dried out by the sun in old logging blocks, making it highly combustible, he said.
Harris said on Friday that wind would likely cause the Pinder Creek blaze to grow overnight.
“We’re watching the weather,” he said. “The main priority is keeping this road open.”