Crofton fire chief Matt Ludvigson. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Crofton fire chief recounts details of Maple Mountain wildfire

One year later: vivid recollections of a hard-fought battle with huge support

Aug. 8, 2018 will long be etched in the memory of Crofton Fire Department chief Matt Ludvigson.

That’s the day the Maple Mountain wildfire broke out and started a concerted effort among Valley departments, along with the BC Wildfire Service, to first battle it and then contain it.

Maple Bay was the original page, but “I was first on scene,” Ludvigson indicated. “I was probably there in under two minutes. Maple Bay’s chief was at the gate. I had my pick-up truck.

“There wasn’t a lot that was burning. When I got up there, there was three fires going that I could see – all in the same area, this one little cutblock.”

Ludvigson said he arrived at 1:34 p.m. and could see the fire at 1:35.

“It was so close to my house,” he noted.

Chemainus, Duncan, North Cowichan’s South End, Sahtlam, Cowichan Bay and Ladysmith were all paged after the initial call.

“Everybody was paged within the first four minutes,” said Ludvigson. “It went that fast. I could tell right away it was a lot bigger than Maple Bay and Crofton. I’m thinking it’s probably the biggest mutual aid assembly we’ve had in this area. All the departments were here.”

As a result, the Mill Bay and North Oyster departments had to be on alert to cover either end of the Cowichan Valley in the event of another fire.

“We got lucky there wasn’t another call in there,” Ludvigson said.

Within 20 minutes, the Maple Mountain fire had spread to two hectares, he added. Almost a kilometre away, there was a fourth and fifth fire spotted – making it three in the top section and two below the road.

“Once you get one fire going, everything goes airborne and it’s going to land at some point,” reasoned Ludvigson.

As the fire dragged on, crews grew weary from some long days.

“To save us time, we weren’t taking all our equipment off the hill every night,” Ludvigson pointed out.

The fire began on a Wednesday and it was Sunday before any equipment was taken down.

“We had crews on it 24 hours a day,” Ludvigson indicated. “Early starts and late finishes. We did our best to run two shifts.”

Weather conditions also became a factor, with maximum heat during that week.

“Pretty much by Wednesday we had the initial knockdown done,” Ludvigson explained. “There was still some little spot fires in the middle of what was already burned.”

Wednesday’s firefight included four helicopters and a plane. Two helicopters were taken to other fires Thursday.

“Our helicopters came out of the Nanaimo Lakes fire,” Ludvigson noted.

“Friday was a bad day because of the wind,” he added. “It flared up fires.”

There were fires everywhere last summer, the worst season on record in B.C. but the BC Wildfire Service did a yeoman’s job.

“Ours was a new start and close to homes, they were able to get us quite a bit of resources really quickly,” praised Ludvigson.

“By Sunday afternoon, we put 1,400 feet of sprinkler lines on it and moved them on Monday. Those sprinklers ran all night. We had people on that all night.”

It was handed off to a contract company that came in for Monday and Tuesdays nights.

“Wednesday was when the fire department handed it back to the Municipality of North Cowichan’s forestry department,” said Ludvigson.

Thus ended a whirlwind week back where it started on a Wednesday.

“We were into it seven operational days out there,” said Ludvigson. “During the night, sporadic patrols of the area and Escarpment Way.

“It wasn’t a massive fire because of all the support the Valley sent us.”

Ludvigson said the personnel on the scene topped out at 100 firefighters.

What’s not known to the community is the incredible work done behind the scenes to support the firefighters away from the fire.

“We had a group of wives at the (Crofton) fire hall that cooked non-stop,” praised Ludvigson.

Three of Crofton’s own firefighters resided in the evacuation alert zone.

“Businesses were really good,” said Ludvigson. “Everybody in town gave us everything we asked for and more. We were pretty well taken care of by our wives.

“It was a huge group effort. Everybody played such a huge role.”

Investigation of the fire’s cause was left to the forestry department of North Cowichan.

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