Forest fires weren’t nearly the concern for residents of the Cowichan Valley in 2016 as they were in 2015, when smoky air was a constant and water bombers and helicopters became a familiar sight.
In fact, there was only one noteworthy forest fire in the region during the summer of 2016, and it didn’t even compare to those of the previous year.
The fire in question sparked up in the Bamberton area in late August, forcing the closure of the Trans-Canada Highway for a few hours on Aug. 25, and keeping firefighters busy for a few days after that.
The blaze flared up near Bamberton and Trowsse roads, starting on the east side of the highway in the early afternoon, and jumping the highway a few hours later. Just over a hectare was burned on the east side of the highway, and just under a hectare was burned on the west side.
Mill Bay fire chief Ron Beck reported that firefighters from his hall were on the scene from 12:30 p.m. on Thursday to 10 p.m. on Friday, back on Saturday until 2 p.m., and again on Sunday for three hours of cleanup.
“I’ve got some very tired guys right now,” he said once the blaze was extinguished.
About 20 Mill Bay firefighters were joined on the scene by crews from the Malahat, Cowichan Bay and Shawnigan Lake halls, and from the Ministry of Forests’ Coastal Fire Centre. The Coastal Fire Centre also battled the blaze from the air, with about four drops from a tanker and several more from a helicopter that spent several hours on the scene.
While Beck appreciated the efforts of all the crews that helped out, he had special praise for the Malahat firefighters and the long hours they put in. The fire was just outside of Malahat’s fire coverage area.
“Malahat went above and beyond,” Beck said. “They stuck by our side for a long time.”
That wasn’t the first time the Malahat department went beyond the call of duty. Earlier in the year, on the morning of March 8, they battled a house fire in South Shawnigan simply out of the kindness of their hearts.
The house fire on Stebbings Road occurred just a few kilometres away from the Malahat fire hall, but in an area outside of their jurisdiction. In fact, there is no official fire service for the area.
“It’s out of our management area,” Malahat fire chief Rob Patterson said at the time. “It’s Zone 99. There is no fire protection whatsoever. We’re just here to be nice.”
The fire razed the house. The homeowner was home but managed to get out without injury.
A month later, on April 7, North Cowichan councillor Joyce Behnsen watched her house go up in flames, across Highway 18 from the Duncan Meadows Golf Course.
The councillor was at home and managed to get out unhurt. Her husband and daughter were both away at the time, but a dog and a cat didn’t make it out.
The house was a complete loss, along with a garage, an RV and at least one truck. Crews from Duncan and Sahtlam were called out to assist the initial responders from North Cowichan’s South End hall.
North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure was confident at the time that Behsen would battle through the adversity.
“I know that she is resilient, and I don’t think this will change her dedication to the job,” he said. “I’m sure she will be back and operational as soon as she can be.”
In late May, flames destroyed the iconic and beloved Quamichan Inn, a restaurant and bed and breakfast housed in a mansion that dated back to 1911.
Owner Richard Phillips said at the time that he felt a responsibility beyond that of a typical business owner.
“When a place has been here 105 years, you think of yourself as a guardian of the place, and that it’s going to stay around,” he said.
Richards wasn’t sure at the time if he would rebuild, acknowledging that the character and history of the building could never be recreated.
Four guests were in the B&B, including a 92-year-old man that Phillips himself had helped climb the stairs to his room, and a table of six in the restaurant. Phillips credited employee Kristi Jones with sounding the alarm and saving the lives of everyone inside.
The blaze was reported shortly after 11 p.m. Firefighters said the fire spread so quickly that there was no chance of saving the structure. The Maple Bay Fire Department was joined by firefighters from South End.
“Upon our arrival, there was a fire on the roof, and within minutes the entire roof was involved,” Maple Bay Deputy Chief Kelly Paddle said. “Due to how fast it was spreading and structural collapse, it became an exterior attack. There was no possibility of saving it, unfortunately.”
The remains of the structure have been cleaned up recently, after raising concerns for some neighbours. A demolition permit was issued by the Municipality of North Cowichan in September, but the potential for hazardous waste at the site was still taking time to deal with when the Citizen followed up on the story in October.
Devastating in a different way was the intentional fire on a playground at the Sherman Road soccer complex in June.
A section of the playground was set on fire and burned to the ground in the early hours of June 19, around the same time that someone took a knife to the new artificial soccer turf.
“It’s frustrating — that’s probably the best word,” North Cowichan director of parks and recreation Ernie Mansueti said. “These are uncommon incidents, but we’ve seen a few of them lately. I think we live in a very good community; you don’t see things like this as much as in other communities that I deal with.”
According to South End fire hall deputy chief Brad Coleman, the first truck on the scene had the flames extinguished almost immediately, but it was too late to save the structure.
“The plastic was burning pretty good when we got there,” he said. “It was fully going for sure.”
The playground was one of the most popular in North Cowichan, Mansueti noted. The original structure was funded by the Duncan Kinsmen Club, and when a new one had to be built, the municipality sought funding from the Rick Hansen Foundation and made the playground partially accessible to wheelchairs. Mansueti said a lot of daycares in the area use it, as well as siblings of children who are playing soccer nearby.
“It’s probably the busiest playground in North Cowichan during the soccer season,” he said.
A week after the late-August forest fire in Bamberton, a marijuana grow op in Duncan also burned.
Fire crews from three halls took about four hours to put down flames that started in the legal operation at a storage facility on Sprott Road Wednesday afternoon. The South End hall had to call on the Duncan and Maple Bay departments for assistance with the fire, fighting the flames from the ground, on the roof, and from an aerial truck.