Canada — Twenty people who were evacuated from the Top of the World Ranch in the East Kootenays as a raging wildfire threatened the property on Tuesday are now reflecting on events some deem miraculous.
“As we exited, it was a pretty sinking feeling thinking this is heading pretty much straight for us,” said Tanner DeBruyne, operations manager of Top of the World, a residential addictions treatment facility located about four kilometres north of Fort Steele.
Top of the World and a second ranch in the area were voluntarily evacuated on Tuesday as a forest fire on Lakit Mountain grew to consume around 350 hectares in less than 24 hours.
The flames ended up coming right to the property line of the nearby home of the facility’s owner. The fence posts were consumed in the blaze.
But as the fence posts burned, the winds changed direction and pushed the fire away from the ranch. The blaze was out shortly after that.
“It was almost as if there was a big bubble over top of our property line that protected us. It’s kind of incredible,” DeBruyne said.
“From where our centre is, you can’t tell there was a fire in the area. Everything’s green and lush. People were sending out their thoughts and their prayers. Certainly our feeling is there was a bit of an overseeing power.”
The fire forced the closure of Highway 93/95, and took out about 30 utility poles. The highway was opened to single-lane traffic just after noon on Tuesday. Power, phone and internet service are expected to be back by the end of the week.
DeBruyne had a front-row seat as he made his exit around 5 p.m.
“I was one of the last people to leave the facility, and the fire was literally in both ditches on the side of the road as I was exiting,” he said.
“The temperature of the car probably increased by 10 degrees and you could only see probably five feet in front of you the smoke was so thick.”
The 20 staff members and residents stayed cool and collected while getting out of harm’s way on the 20-kilometre drive to a hotel in Cranbrook, where they’re staying until the power’s back on.
“It was a short distance, so it wasn’t incredibly nerve-wracking, but definitely closer than I ever want to be to a forest fire again,” DeBruyne said.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. On Wednesday, the fire was 90-per-cent contained, information officer Adam Brayford said.
“Guards are holding on all four flanks of the fire and fire crews today are focusing on mop-up, which consists of going within the fire perimeter and extinguishing and hot or smoldering areas,” he explained.
The fire was only half a hectare in size when it was first reported on Tuesday morning, but crews needed to work hard as the flames spread fast.
“Due to its proximity to Fort Steele as well as rapidity of its growth, fire crews did respond immediately and actioned the fire with full force,” Brayford said, noting three choppers as well as air tankers were deployed.
Meanwhile, crews are still losing ground fighting the blaze less than two kilometres south of Edgewood, but the town seems safe.
“The northern flank on the fire south of Edgewood is holding strong. That’s the one that’s holding the fire away from the community,” Brayford said.
The fire grew from an estimated 160 hectares on Monday to about 350 hectares on Tuesday, with most of the lost ground on the southern flank.
About 90 firefighters, four helicopters, 12 pieces of heavy equipment along with air tankers were trying to get the situation under control on Tuesday.
Authorities hoped cooler temperatures and higher humidity in the southeast would help in the battle.