The Sitkum fire eventually grew to 770-hectares this summer.

The Sitkum fire eventually grew to 770-hectares this summer.

2015’s top stories No. 3: The Sitkum-Duhamel fire

A 770-hectare fire raged for weeks in July, at one point threatening homes along Highway 3A.

From where North Shore resident Bob Tremblay sat in his backyard along Highway 3A on July 4, surrounded on all sides by sprinklers, he could watch as a raging forest fire slowly made its way down the slope towards his home. The conflagration, visible from Nelson, prompted evacuation alerts.

But as of 11:45 p.m. that night, he hadn’t heard anything. In the meantime, he was enjoying the view and trying not to panic.

“Right now we’re looking up into the Aerie Creek drainage, looking northwest, and it’s one tremendous fire burning here,” said Tremblay, whose wife Joyce was also watching with concern. The pair planned to retreat to an empty field across the highway if things worsened.

“We’re getting the Okanagan’s 2003 series here,” said Tremblay. “It is cooling off a bit, and they’ll be out there at first light but there it is, coming down the hill.”

Residents hurriedly drove back and forth along the highway, collecting along the shoulders to take pictures while police urged residents to move along. The fire was initially estimated to have immersed 60 hectares, and was thought to have been caused by a tree-toppling lightning storm in Nelson earlier that week.

“Scary how fast this thing is moving. It’s burned 2-3 km in the past four hours,” Nelson resident John Paolozzi said on Facebook. “I feel a little sick watching this thing.”

On July 8 at a public meeting, incident commander Glen Burgess told about 200 people gathered at L’école des Sentiers-alpins that the fire was an “extremely high priority.”

“We are getting the resources we need to put our plan in place and contain the fire,” he said, noting that about 90 firefighters were working on the blaze, along with 15 support staff, three helicopters, and nine pieces of heavy equipment. “We are making excellent progress.”

When the floor was opened to questions, one resident suggested crews weren’t swift enough in tackling the fire from the air after it flared up Saturday, but fire information officer Jordan Turner called the fire a “sleeping giant” and insisted air tankers moved in as soon as it made sense to do so.

A group of firefighters received a round of applause when they entered the room, and there were further cheers for search and rescue and other emergency groups.

Ten days later fire information officer Karlie Shaughnessy told the Star there were 79 firefighters, 18 support staff, three helicopters and three pieces of heavy equipment continuing suppression efforts.

Ultimately the fire was redirected by the wind, growing to 770 hectares without touching a single home, though 350 residents were on evacuation alert for nine days. By the end of July crews had aggressively beaten it back. However, forest fires below the border then engulfed the town in record-breaking smoke in August.

With the daily average of particulate in the air hitting 167 micrograms per cubic meter the acceptable level is 25 it became increasingly dangerous to breathe. The particles were approximately 2.5 microns in size, which is about a millionth of a meter, and easily inhaled.

“The reason we’re concerned is that the size of these particulates allows them to penetrate deep into the lungs and create respiratory illness and discomfort,” said air quality meteorologist Tarek Ayache of the environmental protection division of BC’s Ministry of Environment.

Interior Health’s Karl Hardt reported three admissions to Kootenay Lake Hospital related to smoke issues. By early September the smoke dissipated with the cooling of the season.