In conditions as dry as the Cowichan Valley has been experiencing in recent weeks, it seems nearly anything can set the parched landscape ablaze.
A fence energized by a downed power line is what started a fire at Duncan Meadows Golf Course Monday afternoon just after 3 p.m.
“We’re not quite sure what happened with the [Hydro] equipment yet,” North Cowichan’s South End Deputy Chief Brad Coleman said Tuesday. “What we feel happened is that the wire energized the fence line for about 1.2 kilometres and that’s when it went from basically a contained area to running in a line along the highway.”
As if the flames travelling along the highway on multiple fronts weren’t enough, hot spots on the golf course added to the mix.
Only one structure, a maintenance hut on the golf course, was ever in any real danger.
“The guys were working hard to protect the exposures there,” Coleman said. “Some of the staff from the golf course were doing whatever they could with whatever water they could find, as well.”
And then the wind picked up, carrying the flames across the highway.
Gusts between 30 and 32 miles an hour facilitated a jump across the pavement.
“The wind was really gusting there and it really picked up just as we were at a crucial spot and it got into the farmer’s field,” Coleman said. “But we were able to get a crew to the other side pretty quickly and we knocked it down within about half an acre.”
Coleman said he made the decision to close Highway 18 between Somenos and North roads and detour traffic when visibility became an issue due to the smoke.
“It got to the point where vehicles were still trying to come through but the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see them coming,” he said.
Coleman said a couple of ex-firefighters were on hand to direct traffic until RCMP arrived to take over.
“We managed to get most people stopped but we still had some vehicles come through,” he said. “It was dangerous at one point there. It was like driving through thick, thick fog.”
The bizarre nature of the fire and the exceedingly dry conditions prompted a full-scale response.
Coleman estimated about 80 firefighters in total, half of those from the South End and Duncan halls, and crews from forestry and also private contractors worked the incident.
“With the nature of the environment right now, we’ve kind of got it in our heads that if it could be anything at all, we err on the side of caution,” Coleman explained. “We can always turn them back but it’s harder to get them coming.”
Members and apparatuses from North Cowichan’s South End, Crofton, and Maple Bay halls attended, as well as equipment and crews from the Sahtlam and Cowichan Bay halls.
A helicopter and ground crew were sent from B.C. Wildfire Services. Even Ladysmith came with their new ground sprinklers, Coleman said.
Luckily for firefighters, water was easily accessible.
“The helicopter was picking right up from the golf course, there’s ponds on the golf course, and we had a hydrant at the end of North Road,” he said. “And with the resources we pulled in from Cowichan Bay and the municipality, water didn’t seem to be an issue. Guys were right on the ball.”
Coleman had high praise for all who worked the incident.
“Fire crews did a great job. With that many resources everybody worked together very well,” he said.
Coleman was proud to say the forestry crews gave the Valley crews a “very good review” from what they saw.
It was a challenge because while many crews were at Duncan Meadows, another brush fire broke out, sending some halls scrambling.
Crofton and Maple Bays crews were doing double duty after a second fire broke out in the brush along Osborne Bay Road near Escarpment Way.
Chemainus crews were also called out to help with the Osborne Bay Road fire, which was initially described as a “25 by 30 fire and moving fast”.
That fire closed Osborne Bay Road for about half an hour but was quickly contained and extinguished.
All that’s left now is the paperwork. The fire on Highway 18 was the biggest multi-jurisdictional fire Coleman has ever been a part of. He said typically call-out reports run about a page long. This one was 36 pages.