Residents of Pender Harbour spent this week dealing with one of the biggest fears for Sunshine Coasters – an interface wildfire. The Cecil Hill fire was discovered around 5 p.m. June 24 in a heavily wooded and steeply sloped area on the east side of Highway 101, near Lily Lake, about 600 metres from the Gulfview Road, Dogwood Drive and Cecil Hill Road areas.
The Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) put the seven homes on Cecil Hill Road on evacuation alert early Tuesday morning, after the fire moved downhill toward the road, growing from the initial estimate of around five hectares late Monday to nine hectares.
The terrain made for difficult conditions for the BC Wildfire Service crews, but by Wednesday morning a combination of boots on the ground, helicopters and air tankers had contained the fire enough for the SCRD to lift the evacuation alert.
“We extend our sincere thanks to all those supporting this incident,” the SCRD said in a statement. “We also thank the public for their cooperation in staying away from the immediate area in order to allow the crews to continue their efforts.”
Coastal Fire Centre information officer Marg Drysdale said Wednesday that crews were expecting those efforts to be helped by the rain that fell in the area Tuesday night and was forecast to continue overnight Wednesday and into Thursday.
The rain came, but with lightning, which put nerves on edge by sparking at least three spot fires, one near Klein Lake and one at Quarry Lake on Nelson Island as well as one at Sakinaw Lake. As of 1:45 p.m. June 27 the Wildfire Service said the Klein Lake fire was 0.10 hectare in size and was being fought by a three person initial attack crew and the fire at Quarry Lake was at 5 hectares with two initial attack crews responding. The Sakinaw Lake fire was at 0.0 hectares with an initial attack crew at the scene.
The Cecil Hill fire, meanwhile was listed as "being held" as of Thursday afternoon.
An update from the BC Wildfire Service Tuesday evening said, “The most active part of the fire is in the southeast corner of the fire near the top of the hill. Most of the fire is now a low-intensity ground fire.”
On Tuesday, 49 firefighters and seven helicopters were assigned to the fire as well as “skimmers,” modified floatplanes that can scoop and dump water.
By Wednesday morning, 47 firefighters and three helicopters were at work to complete the containment. “They’ve gotten the hose lay around about 90 per cent of the fire,” Drysdale said. “The crews are making really good progress.”
Even though the fire is now being held there will be a lot of work still to do. Fire crews were expected to be on scene through the end of the week at least.
The Pender Harbour Volunteer Fire Department and the Sechelt Fire Department’s new structure protection unit remain on standby to provide structure protection if needed.
The fire is listed as “person caused.”
In a letter to Coast Reporter thanking firefighters, Owen Torode said the “many helicopters thumping above” Tuesday made it feel like the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now had started.
Local Facebook groups have also been filled with messages of thanks for the firefighters as well as pictures of smoke plumes and fire crews in action.
“The community has been trying to figure out how to help them. They’re a pretty independent bunch, but some of the restaurants have been looking after them… Lots of people want to take them cookies and coffee and cake,” said Len Lee, SCRD director for Pender Harbour and Egmont.
Madeira Park IGA also opened late so fire crews could stock up after getting down from Cecil Hill after their shifts.
This is Lee’s first time dealing with an emergency situation as the area’s SCRD representative and he’s been impressed with people’s response. “It’s a bad situation but they’ve handled it well,” he said.
He said he’s also been impressed by the coordination between the SCRD’s emergency operation centre, the provincial wildfire agency and the Pender Harbour Volunteer Fire Department. “Our local fire department was supplying whatever support the provincial [firefighters] need and they’ve worked pretty well together.”
Dilys Williams, Coast Reporter’s Pender Harbour community columnist, also lives near the fire zone. “We’re all so thankful and so relieved and really in awe of the amazing firefighting effort that’s saved us,” she said Wednesday.
Williams said area residents knew the fire could turn out to be very serious as soon as it started Monday, but Tuesday morning “was just horrifying” as people woke up to find the fire had moved closer to homes and an evacuation alert had been issued for some of them.
“As the day progressed on Tuesday and there was this enormous amount of air support … I said ‘I have faith, they’re going to do this,’” she said.
Excluding the Cecil Hill fire and the Wednesday night lightning strikes, the Coastal Fire Centre has logged seven other wildfires in the Sunshine Coast area since the season began April 1, including two smaller fires that started June 25, on Kwum Kwum Island in Howe Sound and at Queen’s Reach in Jervis Inlet.
In its June 4 outlook, the Wildfire Service predicted “above normal fire conditions” for the south coast, and the fire danger rating is now at high for most of the Sunshine Coast and extreme at the north end including the area of the Cecil Hill fire.
A full campfire ban, including beach fires above and below the high water mark, has been in place in Sechelt since June 20, and the Pender Harbour Fire Department had a campfire ban scheduled to start at noon on June 28, but the Coastal Fire Centre had not imposed a ban as of Coast Reporter’s June 26 deadline.
The SCRD told Coast Reporter last week that fire departments in its jurisdiction would follow the Coastal Fire Centre’s lead.
The Town of Gibsons bans all outdoor burning, including campfires and beach fires, all year round.