The Rock Creek Fire may be little more than a smoulder and a very bad memory four weeks after it left kilometres of destruction in its wake, yet the acknowledgement of the individuals and organizations that helped support those impacted by the disaster continues.
The following is a summary, from a Midway point of view, of the first few days of the single most devastating event the area has ever experienced.
It was approaching 2 p.m. on Aug. 13, 2015, another hot, dry afternoon in what had become one of the worst droughts the Boundary region had ever experienced.
Bored Room Bistro owners RJ and Tom Lesher were winding down their lunch rush when news of the fire reached them via a customer and their own emergency response radio.
When they learned it was a fairly large fire, and that the crews were likely to be engaged at length, the Leshers, who had lived through the 2003 Kelowna wildfires, began, as they always did, preparing pizzas to feed the firefighters as needed.
It soon became apparent, however, that this was no ordinary fire and tackling it was going to require many more firefighters than the area could provide. “When the fire chief started pulling his personnel back, away from the fire, we knew it was something really serious,” Tom said.
At that moment the Leshers looked at each other and nodded in agreement; their help would be needed, and they must close their restaurant to the public immediately and “get cookin’.” Little did they know how that bold and benevolent gesture would impact not only their own lives, but also those of hundreds of evacuees who had been driven from their homes, temporary or otherwise, by a fire that moved with a vengeance.
Meanwhile, at the Midway Village Office, CAO Penny Feist had been made aware of the Rock Creek blaze, and was being kept abreast of the situation by the MVFD member kept behind to act as a liaison between the village and Fire Chief Walt Osellame.
At this point, Feist had no impression of the severity of the wildfire, but soon thereafter received a telephone call from John MacLean, her counterpart at the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, who is also the director of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) for the region.
Maclean informed Feist that a reception centre for those who might be evacuated from their homes was being considered for the Bridesville area, 16 kilometres west of the Rock Creek fire. A second call from MacLean followed shortly, outlining that the fire was burning more vigourously than first believed and had spread up Highway 33.
Maclean told Feist that evacuation procedures for parts of Rock Creek were commencing and asked her if she could set up a reception centre in Midway.
“I immediately grabbed (deputy clerk) Tami (Peters),” said Feist, “and we went downstairs to pick up emergency social services kits, then headed over to the community hall.”
MacLean, meanwhile, had dispatched ESS representative Cathy Riddle to Midway to take her side along Feist in the organization and operation of the reception centre. Shortly after her arrival, Riddle attended the evacuation site along Highway 33, as busses, supplied by School District 51, were mobilized to evacuate the residents and campers ordered out of the area.
EOC operator Lynne Birch soon arrived from Grand Forks to assist Feist and Peters in preparing for what they expected to be a significant onslaught of evacuated residents and Kettle River campers in need of food, clothing and a place to sleep.
It turned out that the evacuation order was more widespread than initially thought, and that in fact there were nearly 400 evacuees headed to the centre.
“I called Doug McMynn,” said Feist, “and asked if he could get some sandwiches together, and by the time the first busload of evacuees arrived his crew had delivered 470 sandwiches!”
Feist’s staff also contacted the Bored Room Bistro to arrange for pizzas to be prepared and delivered to the centre, and it was at this juncture that the Leshers became the unofficial overseers of the impromptu food supply operation that would remain in place for several days.
It was not until the following Wednesday that the fire camp kitchen was established and deemed ready for operation, and even then, the Leshers pitched in with the loan of equipment and supplies.
As Feist and her small team braced for the influx of over 400 evacuees, the Leshers completed their first round of food preparation, delivered it to the reception centre and assured Feist that they had closed the bistro and would take over the food issues for the evacuees.
“That took a load off her mind, as well as those of the kitchen volunteers, who were glad we were there to take control of the operation,” RJ said. “We shut down the bistro in part because cooking could not take place in the community hall, as the kitchen there is not commercially licensed.”
The Leshers were amazed by the reaction of the village residents, who immediately poured into the hall with offers of clothing, food and accommodation.
“We fed 460 people three meals a day and the reason we were able to do that was because of all the people who pitched in,” Tom said. “It really was a community effort.”
The three food providers each took care of their own group: Mile 0 Diner fed the Forestry representatives embedded in the village, the Bistro took care of the evacuees, McMynn’s provided the firefighters with sandwiches and snacks and the Hot-L restaurant pitched in with storage for some of the massive quantities of food that was being donated. Also not to be overlooked is the effort of The Bridge Drop-In Centre, which received and distributed the mounds of clothing donated.
Impressively, the entire operation, from its outset on that fateful afternoon of Aug. 13 to about a week later when the fire had been brought under control, was virtually seamless, which both the Leshers and Feist are quick to attribute to the special qualities of the residents of the entire region.
“We knew there was something special about this community when we first came here and we just didn’t want to leave,” Tom said.
“We are so proud of not only Midway, but Greenwood, Rock Creek, Grand Forks, Penticton, the whole region,” RJ added. “People really stood up, and are still standing up. The fridges are absolutely crammed. It was an amazing effort.”
Residents of this rural southern British Columbia region hope they will never have to experience something like this again, but rest assured if they do, they’ll be well-prepared to manage it!