'The wind shifted and the smoke rolled in like a wall'

Evacuees describe the scene as they fled forest fire

Heather Klassen felt like she was in a sauna walking through a superheated snowstorm.

Chunks of hot white ash descended from the sky as she led her horses to safety from a raging wildfire nearby.

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The 69-year-old resident of the Cariboo community of Miocene, about 20 kilometres northeast of Williams Lake, wasn't taking any chances and made the decision Friday morning to leave her Spokin Lake Road home with her husband Rudy, daughter Nadina Doyle, her daughter's boyfriend, two horses and seven dogs.

"It felt about 160 degrees on my face as I rode the horse, like really hot bathtub water that you can't put your feet in," said Klassen, who spent the night Saturday at the Prince George wildfire evacuation centre at the College of New Caledonia. "I was riding the horse on the side of the road at about an eight-mile-an-hour trot and it felt like I was going to have a sunburn."

The blaze began Friday morning about two kilometres south of their property and grew rapidly in the tinder-dry conditions. 

"It was calm as can be when it started, but the bigger the fire got the windier it got and it started swirling," she said.

Klassen suffers from allergies and with smoke billowing out of the forest surrounding their 10-acre property, she wasn't waiting for the evacuation order which came shortly after when the RCMP arrived to tell everybody in the area it was time to leave. 

Their three cats had scattered on the property and could not be found, plus they had to leave their two pigs behind. Without a horse trailer, Heather saddled up and rode to the Miocene fire hall with the other horse in tow, while her husband and daughter packed up some of their valuables and got the dogs in the truck. Rudy and Doyle both used to be part of the Miocene volunteer fire department and they know how unpredictable forest fires can be. 

"The wind shifted and the smoke rolled in like a wall," Doyle said. "There were chunks falling, burnt tips of coniferous trees, and when they go up they keep an ember for a long time. It was almost like a snowfall of these embers coming down.

"I talked to my boyfriend about a half-hour before I saw the smoke and I said we should load the car up with everything we might need and be ready to go at a moment's notice and then all of sudden there's smoke. Then it was, not panic, but get stuff done now."

Doyle had already penned in the horses close to the house when they decided to leave. She took over the horses from her mom and rode to a friend's property where the horses stayed overnight while she and her parents and the dogs took shelter at the Williams Lake evacuation centre at Lake City secondary school. The smoky conditions Saturday in Williams Lake prompted them to head to Prince George. By the time they got to Quesnel the smoke had cleared and they could breath a little easier, but they were still feeling the raw effects in their throats Sunday morning

Although some properties in the area were destroyed in the fire, Doyle and her parents believe their home was spared.

"I'm not taking this as a given until I get out there and see it, but my boyfriend talked to a friend of ours who either knew somebody or had been out there herself and apparently all the phone lines on Spokin Lake Road are gone but the road that we live on, all the buildings are safe," she said. "Whether or not that's actually true, I haven't seen it myself."

While camped out in the CNC parking lot with all their dogs, a nearby Prince George resident offered to put them up in their home for the duration of their emergency stay.

Danny Vergara was working at his job as an attendant at the Husky gas station in 150 Mile House on Friday when he saw a lightning bolt hit the ground and spark the blaze, which by Sunday had grown to 2,500 hectares and spread to the Sugarcane First Nation reserve,.

"I was looking out the window and saw the lightning strike," said Vergara, who also joined the exodus to Prince George after two days in the Williams Lake evacuation centre. He's staying with his boss's brother at Ness Lake. "It started off with a little fire near Spokin Lake and then it just turned into chaos."

The shelter offered relief but Vergara was concerned about his lost wages now that he can't go to work in the near future.

"Before I started my job seven months ago at Husky I was homeless, I was literally just getting up on my feet with a good job and I got my own place and I'm kind of torn," he said. "But at the same time I just need to keep my spirits up because I've been at the bottom before.

"I really hope now that it's a huge crisis that this opens up people's eyes to get ready now, just in case something happens. People are complaining that there's no power, no WiFi, and then there's others who have lost everything. I've run into at least a couple who have lost property."

Jack Owen lives at the Pine Valley trailer park in the north end of Williams Lake not far from the fire which threatened the airport Saturday and the smoke convinced him and his wife Tanya Seland, their daughter Cassidy, son Martin and his girlfriend Carly Caplette to load their truck and trailer and tent trailer. They grabbed their two cats, their clothes, food, photographs, their passports and other valuables and drove to the Prince George evacuation centre.

"The smoke was horrible and we could hardly breath," said Owen. "We moved everything to the trailer and went to town and laid low for the night and at noon (Saturday) they said the city was under notice and we just decided we'd get out while the roads were open.

"We went in to Williams Lake to fuel up and they were all out of gas and there was just one station where I could get diesel."

In their 2 1/2-hour drive north to Prince George Owen and his family saw the fire closest to their home at Wildwood and also spotted flames from the Deep Creek, Alexandria and Kersley fires. Once they arrived at CNC, they registered and each were given vouchers for $22.50 worth of groceries per day at Save-On-Foods. They've been told they could be stuck in Prince George until at least Wednesday.

"We've been treated really well here," said Owen.

Dave Robb, 71, left his home at 108 Mile Ranch, one of the first communities to be evacuated on Thursday when the Gustafsen fire began threatening. He's heard there has been some property damage in the fire but he's not sure where.

"The last update we had was that they had lost some structures in 108 and the guys were working really hard to fight it and keep it back but the fire is bouncing all over the place because of the winds," he said.

Robb spent two nights at the Williams Lake evacuation centre and was asked to come to Prince George to make room for a wave of new evacuees heading to Williiams Lake.

"The people in both places have just been doing a great job working hard for everybody and we're being looked after really well," said Robb. "We're so grateful for all the firefighters and first responders that are out there doing an amazing job.

"My concern is these fires are going to meet up and join and it's just going to be wicked," he added. "The last we heard was the fire was working its way up to Lac La Hache. We saw lots of flame and different coloured smoke and when we left Williams Lake it was really bad around Kersley. We saw a couple places where some fires were starting."

Robb said he's seen frustration from some of the evacuees who were unable to find any information about the homes they left behind and they had hoped the shelters would have been fed more up-to-date and accurate reports from fire crews to keep rumours from spreading. But he had nothing but praise for the people he'd seen in action working at the two evacuation centres. 

"In Williams Lake (Saturday), things started to explode with the fire at the airport and a couple of subdivisions and a lot of the people working at the shelter there, a lot of the volunteers, they were still working and they weren't able to home and get stuff while their subdivisions where they lived were on high alert or were being evacuated," he said.

"As much as they were helping us, they were trying to get a hold of friends, neighbours or family to get stuff from their house and yet they stuck with the job. I thought that was admirable but I don't know if I could have done that. They were sweating bullets while they were getting bombarded by people asking for information."

Having never lived through a disaster like this before, Robb says he was given adequate warning he might have to leave but did not respond in time and admits he was caught by surprise. He left some of the basics behind like his toothbrush, his shampoo and electrical cord to charge his notebook computer.

"I don't know how it affected other people but I didn't react," he said. "What I should have been doing is when the fire services give an alert, you really should be packing your stuff and I didn't do that. When the call came out in my neighbourhood to get out now (Friday afternoon), I was running around my house wondering what to take. If you get an alert, that's the time to get packed. Even if you don't have to leave, get packed and get it in your vehicle and when they say you have to go now you leave."

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