The Deka Lake Wildfire

On Wednesday, June 30th, I drove from Prince George where I had been visiting family to our cabin at Deka Lake. Deka is one of beautiful lakes in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, inhabited by many people year-round and popular with summer visitors. I was looking forward to a night with my son who would be there for the weekend. Instead, we would face the Deka Lake Wildfire.

As I drove through 100 Mile House, smoke was heavy. I could feel it my lungs, and it lingered in my nose and mouth. I knew there was a fire at Kamloops and another at Lytton. At the lake the smoke cleared, and my son and I caught up on news. As always, Cariboo skies provided endlessly fascinating clouds, and I snapped a photo of a massive one.

The leading edge of the storm

I knew thunderstorms were predicted and this looked threatening. At the southwestern end of the lake, the skies were eerily beautiful (below). Later, we would focus most of our attention on that exact spot.

The Deka Lake wildfire starts

The storm started in late afternoon. I love a good thunderstorm but was concerned as the forests were tinder dry. Lightning struck deep into the hills all around us. Thunder clapped right above as a few boaters risked the lake. The wind picked up. A brief shower fell. The same clouds circled us shaking us with their claps of noise and forks of light.

My son and I both spoke at the exact same time: “I smell smoke.” We saw dark puffs rising from behind a ridge across the southwestern side of the lake.

My son phoned BC Wildfire Service [*5555 on a cell phone]. The person who answered asked if the fire was near electrical wires and homes – this area is full of rural homes.

After this point, I can’t be too certain of times, but I believe we saw the fire at around 6:30. I informed a family from the Lower Mainland staying at the B&B next to us of the fire and that we had reported it. Then we checked in with other neighbours and we all watched. The following photo shows the smoke billowing up across the lake as everyone waited.

People watch and wait.

We knew that the forest service would be unlikely to douse any significant fire before nightfall. About an hour later a helicopter arrived and circled the blaze several times. That was followed by a small plane. Around 7:30, we heard more planes. Between 7 and 8:30 p.m., large aircraft made multiple passes, dropping fire retardant and water on the blaze. It felt like a war movie was happening and I cheered and waved as one passed low overhead.  (See the video which shows some of the planes. At this point, I stopped taking photos.) When the planes didn’t return, we fixated on the fire area. The smoke seemed to have stopped. We hoped.

Fires are all around us

Heroes arrive to fight the fire.

During this period, we had called home to the Lower Mainland. Our family jumped onto various websites to sort out where the fire was in relation to us. But the postings online couldn’t keep up with all the fires that were popping up. It seemed that the one we saw was near Interlakes – our route south. (We now know it was the much closer Judson Road fire.) We heard of others at Bridge Lake and Sheridan Lake – the exit route to Kamloops. Another was reported at Horse Lake where RCMP was asking people to stay off the roads – our route to 100 Mile House (so named because of its strategic location on the gold rush trail). We learned that, further south, Highway 97 to Vancouver was shut down because of fire at Lytton.

We prepared our belongings so we could leave if necessary and ate a quick dinner while family continued investigating. Thunder rumbled around us. We did not know if any of our exit routes were safe. The only known road closure was at Lytton, many miles to the south. Would more fires pop up or block our way if wind increased?

About 9:30, we conferred again with family. The consensus was that Horse Lake Road to 100 Mile House was the most secure option because that fire had been mentioned only once, and the precise location was unclear. While we were talking, smoke billowed up again across the lake. Our decision was made, and we loaded the cars. I had been keeping the family at the B&B apprised of all we were learning, and I walked across again to let them know our decision. As we were about to leave, one of them told us they were also packing up to leave as Deka Lake had been put on evacuation alert. As I turned, I saw flames above the ridge. I don’t know if there is anything more terrifying.

We were all calm throughout this, but I can tell you the tension was very present. I could feel tremors running through my body and could see the worry on the faces of my family. Even as I write this, my unease is still present.

Evacuation from the Deka Lake Wildfire

Darkness dropped like a blackout curtain over us as we left the lake in separate cars. It was hard to see. As we approached the turnoff onto Horse Lake Road, two huge vehicles with their lights shining at us appeared to be blocking our way. We thought they were going to prevent us from passing, but there was room to go by. It looked like a pickup truck had gone into a guard rail, but I couldn’t be sure. A kilometer or two later, two more vehicles loomed with their bright lights ahead – this time fixing downed powerlines. A flag person waved us through, but communications had been mixed up, because another truck was approaching us head on. More unfamiliar vehicles appeared further down the road. The night seemed to be taking on apocalyptic proportions and the forty-minute drive seemed interminable.

We reached 100 Mile House, spent the night in a hotel and the next day drove home. That day we heard fire had destroyed the town of Lytton. Lytton had been engulfed by flames in minutes and people ran for their lives. At present two people are known to have died. Residents of Deka Lake and Sulphurous Lake were ordered to evacuate the day after the storm. Today they are still under evacuation.

This account of my flight from the Deka Wildfire seems overly dramatic to me now as I reread it. We are safe and our experience seems so slight, but I am grateful. I know it could have been very different. Judson Road intersects with all the exits from Deka except one remote back road. With a closer lightning strike or different winds, we might not have been able to escape.

I need to end this way:

I would like first to express my sympathy for the terrible tragedy at Lytton. At the present time, two people are known to be deceased and others are missing. Relatives of our close friends have lost everything. And all too often, it is those who have so little who suffer the most. The fires in BC continue to rage, including the Deka Lake Wildfire.

Second, I would like to cheer and honour all those courageous firefighters, police, pilots, volunteers at reception centres and others who put their own wellbeing at risk to protect us. They are true heroes.

Next, this fire season has started early. It is another year of unprecedented temperatures, months of smoke, pain and suffering. Fires are burning from the north to the south. Thousands of other families around BC are at risk. Our lush cedar forests cannot survive extreme heat. The wild creatures that make this part of the world so incredible will die of heat, or from fires, or for lack of food or water. People in our cities are suffering and dying of heat exhaustion. Glaciers are melting at an extraordinary rate. What will we do when glacier water no longer fills our rivers and lakes? How will we cope when temperatures become even more unbearable? There are no miracles. There is only hope through action.

We have to demand that governments and corporations act. And we each must challenge ourselves to do more, because to do nothing is to leave a grim legacy for future generations. I invite comment. But please, if you are a climate denier, I do not want to hear from you.

I write books and I write reviews of books for The Miramichi Reader.