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Tension eases near Gun Lake amid cooler temperatures

After locals raised concern about potential back burns, crews and residents are working together to protect remaining structures from out-of-control wildfire
A small group of Gun Lake residents are pictured fighting the Downton Lake wildfire “tooth and nail.” The homeowner who snapped this photo said the group fought the blaze until 4 a.m., as flames came within 50 feet of a cabin.

Even as wildfires continue to burn out of control, leaving a trail of devastation in their path, a Gun Lake homeowner who has defied evacuation orders to remain at his property said the tense situation in the Upper Bridge River Valley finally appears to be easing on several fronts.

“It’s raining lightly here and things are finally starting to feel like we’ve got a bit more of a hold on it,” said Noah Reid in a phone call on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 29.

For more than a month, Reid has remained at the property where he typically lives full-time between April and October, despite the evacuation orders officials at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) issued in response to a pair of fast-spreading fires in the area.

“A lot of it comes down to just the vested interest you have in it,” he said. “I’ve owned this place for six years now, constantly working on it and improving it, and it’s something that I don’t want to just let go that easily.

“No one else is going to have that same kind of dedication to protect your place as you do—not to say that the crews aren’t out there, and they are doing a lot of good work, but there’s just a whole other level of commitment if it’s your own place.

“I’m not willing to die for my place or anyone else’s,” he clarified, “but I think if you can make educated and rational decisions, you can do it fairly safely.”

In a bulletin posted earlier on Tuesday, Aug. 29, the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) said crews and heavy equipment were focused on securing the fire’s edge along the West Tyaughton guard, while structure protection personnel in the area worked to maintain sprinkler systems in the Pearson drainage and south of Gun Creek Road.

“Firefighters and structure protection personnel are working overnight to monitor and patrol the fire edge,” the bulletin read.

In an Aug. 26 community update, the SLRD credited consistent cooler temperatures and precipitation with limiting fire activity in the area, though the BCWS estimated the Downton Lake fire at 9,506 hectares as of Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 29.

That’s good news for Reid, but not much consolation for residents who have already begun grieving the loss of their homes—it only means assessors are one step closer to being able to return to the shores of Gun Lake to gauge the damage.

According to the BC Lakes Stewardship Society, Gun Lake has about 260 residentially zoned properties, with 30 year-round residents and three commercially zoned properties.

On Aug. 6, The SLRD initially announced the fire had destroyed two single-family recreational properties and at least 12 outbuildings in the Gun Lake area. The SLRD more recently confirmed more structures had been lost since, particularly around the northwest side of Gun Lake, but could not provide a number. The SLRD said crews began conducting Rapid Damage Assessments (RDA) on Aug. 22, but were interrupted when shifting wildfire activity forced the RDA team to evacuate.

“I’m sitting on my dock right now looking across at just devastation on the other side of the lake,” Reid said Aug. 29. He estimated there were “probably 50-plus" burnt structures, but couldn’t pinpoint a specific number.

Some residents in the area believe back-burn operations exacerbated the fire.

The small group of property owners who have stayed behind have “been fighting tooth and nail” to protect their properties, he said, “and to see all that effort be lost would be a real shame.”

Back burning is one strategy crews use to eliminate fuel in a wildfire’s path, in an effort to control the blaze.

“It’s not to say there isn’t a time and place for it, but on hot, windy days, near residential properties, it doesn’t seem to be a very effective technique,” Reid said. “It’s just too high-risk. Sitting down and talking with forestry [crews], I think they’re starting to realize that, and I think it took some pressure.”

On Saturday, Aug. 26, the BCWS confirmed its crews had no plans to fight the Downton Lake wildfire with any large-scale back burn ignitions, after residents in the unincorporated community of Gun Lake voiced concern about a potential back burn planned for Sunday, Aug. 27.

“The Gun Lake community has already suffered devastating loss, the highest ratio of loss in any Canadian community at present,” reads a letter signed by Gold Bridge resident Jessica Robinson, and addressed to BCWS officials and elected representatives on Saturday.

“The community, including many on the ground crews that have been working on the fires for weeks on end, are deeply concerned about continued back burns.”

Reid praised crews for their continued efforts, and for being receptive to residents’ feedback. “I think they’ve totally re-evaluated,” he said on Tuesday. “I just got back from a tour around and there’s some great work that’s been done.”

He gave particular credit to the hard-working logging crews who he said have installed “some amazing fire guards” in the area.

In a video posted to the SLRD’s YouTube channel on Saturday, Aug. 26, BC Wildfire incident commander Hugh Murdoch elaborated on the challenges fire suppression crews are facing this season.

“A guard in itself won’t always stop a fire, especially under the extreme conditions that we’re finding ourselves in this summer across much of the province. One might think that a lake would be a fantastic guard, but there’s examples here where Carpenter Lake has had fire jump across it, and then you could go into the Okanagan, Lake Okanagan [and] Shuswap Lake, they both had fires jump across them,” he explained.

“The width of a guard is still limiting, so there’s a time when you have to support those machine guards with burn operations.”

Still, between ground crews and helicopter support attacking flames from above during the last week of August, “it’s amazing to see how well that’s working and how they’ve been able to quell the fire and push it back,” said Reid.

After a rocky few weeks, the relationships between some crews and locals who’ve stayed in the area have improved, he said. “Hopefully, you know, there’s some positive change that comes with it—how local folks can work a little more with forestry and with local fire departments, because there is a lot of local knowledge here and a lot of skill and a lot of great people,” Reid said.

The Downton Lake fire is part of the Bendor Range Complex, which also includes the Casper Creek fire burning east of Gold Bridge, near Anderson Lake about 24 kilometres west of Lillooet. Crews estimated that fire remained at approximately 10,982 hectares as of Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 29.

Lightning is believed to have sparked the Downtown Lake fire on July 11. The fire burned out of control for weeks before a cold front sweeping across the province after a long stretch of hot weather earlier this month caused flames to intensify—even resulting in the “incredibly rare” occurrence of a “fire tornado” forming over Gun Lake on Aug. 18.

“That morning, I got up and I said, ‘This fire looks as good as I’ve seen it,’ and it was burning just across from my cabin. I saw no smoke, nothing happening,” Reid recalled.  Fast-forward to mid-afternoon, “there was a raging fire.” After winds shifted later that night, “the entire side of the lake” was burnt by morning, he added.

-with files from Braden Dupuis