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Elinor Florence (Company name) Elinor Florence

Life in the Fire Zone

Greetings from the fire zone in British Columbia, where we are now almost surrounded on three sides by out-of-control forest fires.

Huge plume of orange smoke rises against the blue sky, the sun peeking out from behind the smoke, a line of mountains below, while cars drive down a paved road in the foreground. The Horsethief fire as seen from the approach to Invermere, BC in July 2023.

We have lived in our little mountain resort town of Invermere for 28 years, and for most of them we felt perfectly safe.

Earthquakes? Not here. Tornados? Unheard of. Floods? We are perched too far up the mountainside.

Man-made pollution? Not in our sheltered little valley, with no industry and precious few vehicles.

Yet here we are in the forest fire zone. The photo above shows the road approaching our town, situated on the flat area. The pointed peak on the left is Mount Nelson, named after Lord Horatio Nelson himself. The fire burning just to the north of Mount Nelson is called Horsethief, named after nearby Horsethief Creek.

To help you understand where we live, the arrow in the below map points to Invermere, in the southeast corner of British Columbia.

The Alberta border is one hour to the east and Montana is two hours to the south.

Map of southern British Columbia and alberta with a red dot marking Invermere, British Columbia in the forest fire zone.

We were very comfortable here — until our valley turned into a fire zone.

There are currently 367 fires burning in the province of British Columbia, as shown in the map below from the B.C. Wildfire Service.

The red dots indicate out-of-control fires, while the red dot with a white figure inside indicates a fire that poses a threat to public safety.

Map of British Columbia Fire Zone, with coloured yellow, red, and green dots showing forest fires in August 2023 clustered together, almost covering the province.

Our first warning happened in 2003, when a major forest fire took off in nearby Kootenay National Park. No homes were burned and no lives were lost, since there was nobody to evacuate.

Nevertheless, whenever we drive east to Calgary we pass through a vast area of blackened landscape, a chilling reminder – or perhaps a searing reminder – of Mother Nature’s power.

Then, in 2017, we experienced the worst smoke of our lives. Fires in other parts of the province and northern U.S. blanketed us with smoke, and I do mean blanketed. The smoke was so thick that one afternoon, the smoke alarms in our house sounded.

Our beautiful lakeview was obliterated. We could see smoke twisting and roiling across the lawn. Our bedding smelled like smoke, and even our hair.

This is the view from my front window on a typical summer day. We look eastward, toward Mount Swansea.

Beautiful view of Mount Swansea in British Columbia silhouetted against the blue sky, with calm blue Lake Windermere below and a forest of evergreen trees in the foreground, Invermere, B.C. in August 2023.

But when the smoke gets really bad, my view looks like this.

Fire Zone, view of Mount Swansea and Lake Windermere almost obliterated with orange smoke, the sun an orange ball in the sky, reflecting an orange path across the lake below.

In 2018, we were almost smoked out again. The elderly, and people with lung problems, had trouble breathing. I worried about my little grandson Jack, born that summer with asthma.

The smoke lasted until the blessed cool fall weather extinguished the fires.

In the five summers since, we have experienced weeks of sunny weather, when the purple mountains rise against the crystal clear smog-free skies.

At times, we have also experienced a sporadic return of the dreaded smoke. A major nuisance, but still no personal threat.

But this summer is different. For the first time, we are smack dab in the fire zone.

The biggest of the three fires started in July, on the mountain range behind us, to the west. From my kitchen window I saw the smoke plume – it reminded me of snowy hail clouds rising like a tower in the prairie skies. Horsethief is only ten kilometres away from us, too close for comfort.

By driving to the top of the nearest rise, we could see the line of orange flame across the ridge – flaring up in bursts as it “crowned,” jumping from treetop to treetop.

Fire Zone, the Horsethief Creek fire in southeastern British Columbia shows as a line of orange flames crawling across a treed mountain ridge, while a dense cloud of white smoke billows upward, August 2023.

It happened so fast that hikers near the top of the mountain had to be evacuated by helicopter, and Invermere made the international news.

You can read the whole story here: Helicopter Rescues Hikers.

Fire Zone, the back of a young woman wearing a black tank top and black shorts, blonde ponytail flying, runs frantically toward a waiting helicopter while a huge cloud of black smoke is seen behind the helicopter, almost covering the mountain range in the background, Invermere, BC July 2023

The rural area between Horsethief and the valley towns below (Invermere, plus Radium Hot Springs to the north) were either evacuated or put on alert. Home Hardware sent a crew with flat-deck trailers to assist with evacuating horses and cattle. Farmers plowed circular fireguards and moved their machinery inside them.

Yellow water bombers and helicopters with buckets scooped water from Lake Windermere and flew past our front window, so close we could almost see the pilots.

At night, the line of scarlet flame raced along the horizon. Forest fires look even more terrifying at night, don’t they?

Fire Zone, Horsethief Fire in southeastern British Columbia at night shows a maelstrom of brilliant flames, orange smoke and balls of burning light rising against the black sky, July 2023.

Then the wind changed, and overnight the Horsethief fire headed in another direction, away from us and into the uninhabited forest.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Evacuation Orders were lifted, although Evacuation Alerts remain in effect. (An Alert means Get Ready; an Order means Get Out Now).

However, the respite didn’t last long.

Almost immediately, an existing fire called Yearling Creek to the east of us, in Kootenay National Park, blew up.

The smoke plume rose like the contrails of the space shuttle.

Here’s the view of the Yearling Creek smoke from my front window.

Fire Zone, Yearling Creek fire near Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia, is seen from across Lake Windermere as a huge orange cloud tipped with white, billowing upward against a smoky, blurry backdrop of blue mountains, a green spruce tree in the foreground.

And by walking to the edge of our yard and looking to the south, we could see more billowing smoke from another fire about 30 kilometres away at the southern end of Lake Windermere, the Mia Creek fire.

In short, we have fires to the east, west, and south.

What is life like in the fire zone?

When the wind is in the wrong direction, it’s like living in a London fog, except this fog is hot and dry and milky white. A fine white ash sprinkles our house and yard.

We wake up each morning and check the fire reports for all three existing fires, hoping that another fire hasn’t broken out while we were asleep.

The firefighters are treated like heroes, and well they should be. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine them suiting up in protective gear in this weather and then traipsing around so close to a raging fire. Our community mourned the loss of four firefighters who have lost their lives this summer in other parts of the province.

Kids all over town have made thank you signs posted on the grassy strip beside the public library. My grandchildren — Jack, Juliet and Nora — made this one.

Three children, a little blond boy on the left, a blonde girl in the middle, and a taller girl with brunette hair, all wearing shorts and T-shirts, pose smiling with a homemade yellow poster bearing a drawing of trees on fire, and the words Thank You for Fighting the Fire, outside on a lawn, the sky smoky in the background, Invermere, BC August 2023

We imported a crew of 42 firefighters from Mexico. Their first request was for super hot sauce because they found our Canadian food so bland.

The community turned out its pantries in search of salsa!

Thankfully we have a local Mexican restaurant and they were able to satisfy their cravings at Su Casa Authentic Mexican Kitchen. This photo shows a few firefighters with the restaurant owner’s kids.

Fire Zone, six Mexican firefighters one wearing a red shirt and the others in matching yellow jackets, stand together in a row, smiling at the camera, while another man in a black shirt stands off to the right, and two little boys in T-shirts, jeans, and black baseball caps pose with the firefighters, Invermere, BC August 2023

The Canadians and Mexicans were joined in the fire zone recently by an American group, one of the famed Hot Shots crews, all the way from Lake Tahoe, Nevada. This brief video shows them in action, battling the Horsethief fire: Tahoe Hot Shots. 

Fire Zone, six firefighters in brown shirts and pants, all wearing yellow hardhats and carrying chainsaws, hike up a slight hill, and behind them is a green truck bearing the words Tahoe Hotshots, Invermere, BC August 2023

Surprisingly, the number of tourists hasn’t dropped. There are still boats on the lake, hikers on the trails, and restaurants filled with happy diners.

But the locals are anxious. Some people have made the difficult decision to sell up and leave the area (although it’s unclear where to move, since most of Western Canada and most of the continent might eventually be affected by smoke.)

We don’t plan to move, but we are taking all the precautions. We reviewed our list of things to take with us if we receive an Evacuation Order.

That’s a pretty optimistic approach, because if lightning struck a tree in our yard we would probably have only minutes to leave.

We have placed our important papers in a place where they are easy to Grab and Go. I wrote about this here: What to Save in a Fire.

Currently, the weather in the fire zone continues to be extremely hot and dry. Each evening we are torn between opening our windows for some refreshing cool air (we don’t have air conditioning) or keeping them closed to reduce the smoke that has permeated our house.

We don’t even know whether to pray for rain, because thunderstorms bring lightning, which in turn creates more fires.

Each of the three local fires have now reached about 40 square kilometres in size and all three are still considered Out of Control.

Meanwhile, Horsethief continues to eat its way through the hot, dry forest. It was 36 degrees Celsius here yesterday, on August 15, 2023 (96 degrees Fahrenheit).

For now, we watch and wait.

Fire Zone, fire on Horsethief Creek in southeastern British Columbia, white smoke billows into a clear blue sky from a long line of fires burning across the top of a treed mountain, August 2023


* * * * *

Friends, in spite of all these ghastly fires, we are still able to sleep at night. The firefighters are doing a heroic job and the odds are still very much in our favour. I look forward to sharing some happier news in my next Letter From Windermere. Gratefully, Elinor

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