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COLUMN: Looking back on historic fire that nearly destroyed a B.C. town

Enormous firefighting effort saved Beaverdell from destruction in 1989
A map created by the Ministry of Forests shows the activity of the Bea Fire in Beaverdell, B.C. in 1989, including one house in particular (at bottom right) that was nearly completely surrounded by flames. (Ministry of Forests)

I spent two weeks in the summer of 1989 drenched in perpetual sweat at the Vernon Cadet Camp.

I hated it. I was new to the Okanagan, having grown up in breezy, cool Richmond. I was just 12, chronically grumpy, and thrown into the rigours of 5:30 a.m. calisthenics, and torturous parade square marches under the blazing sun.

The best times were when we could head to the beach, or sit in a classroom with air conditioning. And that’s where I was, going through first aid training, when an officer knocked on the classroom door.

“Is Cadet Peters here?” he asked, somewhat ominously. I left class, feeling I may be in trouble.

But when I met up with him outside, he delivered news that was so strange to hear, and still rattles around in my brain some 30 years later. It was part statement, part question.

“I’ve been told to tell you … you’re town is on fire?”

We stood there looking at each other for a cinematic amount of time, neither of us knowing what to make of the message. My town was on fire? My whole town? I lived in Beaverdell, about a two-hour drive from the camp and barely a dot on any map.

It knew it had been a particularly hot summer, I wasn’t just being dramatic as I melted and complained to my superiors. I knew there were fire risks as we had talked about it at home. I called my mom and found out that it wasn’t all on fire, but could be if the winds shifted.

Someone had dropped a cigarette in a log pile at a sawmill, and it didn’t take long for the fire to spread and threaten the entire little village of about 250 people.

My mom was gathering my brothers’ comfort items, insurance papers and toilet paper (she still laughs about this) and heading to a friend’s house that was not in the path of the fire. I was safer to just stay at camp, she said, no need to come home. Everything was going to be fine.

The Bea fire burned for six days, starting on July 31, 1989, and covered about 660 hectares of the valley. Most of that was within the first four hours. It must have been terrifying, but in the heat of the moment my family called to tell me they were OK.

On that first day, 130 firefighters worked on the blaze, along with skidders, bulldozers, tanker trucks and more. The fire peaked on day two, and was fought by 273 firefighters, along with 94 pieces of equipment.

It was all mopped up by August 18, and kept under observation for flare ups until September. Remarkably, nobody died. No homes were lost.

But in the thick of it, our rural family home seemed to be targeted by the flames. At one point, it was surrounded on three sides. The creek, an offshoot of the Kettle River, provided a barrier to the south. Highway 33, along with a team of firefighters that included my neighbours, provided a barrier to the east.

When the eventual lightning came, it cracked a cottonwood tree open in our front yard that sliced through our yard, missing the house by a few feet.

It took an all-out effort to save our house. And while I didn’t ever get to see the efforts up close, I have always appreciated firefighters and their incredible sacrifices in the heat to save life and limb.

And it made those early mornings and hot afternoons at army camp a little more bearable, knowing that someone was protecting us.

So, thank you to all of our B.C. firefighters for your hard work, this summer and always.

READ MORE: More properties on evacuation alert due to Sparks Lake wildfire


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Jessica Peters

About the Author: Jessica Peters

I began my career in 1999, covering communities across the Fraser Valley ever since.
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