The South Cariboo (108) Community Airport has had a mammoth amount of amazing aircraft landings since the wildfire season hit their community directly after the Gustafsen blaze broke out on July 6.
Airport general manager Nick Christianson says the airspace was closed entirely while the evacuation order was in place for a few days, then emergency aircraft were allowed to land again before authorities lifted the order to allow regular flights back in on July 26.
Along with local Cariboo Air pilot, Tom Turner, who was working on-call for the BC Forest Service (BCFS) performing fire spotting duties in his plane these men hunkered down and camped out at the airport the whole time, working in smoke so thick it was “like having your head in a wood stove” (a smoke detector woke him twice in the night).
Christianson says he worked 52 long shifts straight without a day off, most of them turning into bed too tired to eat supper.
“I was here until the evacuation order was lifted, and we got to go home. We were just keeping it all organized [and] ready for the military when they called – they wanted to use it, possibly for the Hercules [cargo carrier], if they were doing evacuations.”
Since the wildfires first ignited in early July, both he and Turner have been assisting the BCFS from dawn to dusk in safely landing helicopters, bombers, military planes and loads of other aircraft refueling at the 108 airport, as well as for the daily needs of crew and equipment.
“I think when we started up there were 11 helicopters here on the first night, and then a lot of them moved to 100 Mile because [those in command of them] were afraid the fire might actually hit the airport.”
Then about half of the aircraft came back a couple of days later, to maintain both airport locations for wildfire personnel and equipment to gain access – although with just Christianson and a few others holding down this overnight vigil, at times, he wondered why he stayed.
“The power went off, so thank goodness we’d put that new generator in a couple of years ago – we had the grant the B.C. government gave us – or we’d have had more troubles. We were the only ones who had electricity here [in the community] for almost two weeks.”
Christianson told the Free Press how strange and frightening it felt after darkness fell to be looking out over the 108 community and seeing absolutely no lights anywhere.
“All you could see were red balls of fire glowing in the smoke … it was really an eerie feeling the first couple of nights, especially, and quite scary – you know, I’m not kidding you. It was one of the first times I’ve ever been that scared, I think.
“We didn’t know whether to run or stay; it’s hard to make that decision. And, we were terrified that we were going to lose all that equipment. But, they did put in the fire fighting team to make sure they saved it, and the building and the fuel system, because without that, we’d really have been in the soup.”
One feeling he most strongly recalls reflects back to watching the frightened faces of fire fighters working on the fire lines close by the airport.
“It was scary [for everybody]. There were times that they were right on the edge of the [wildfire] and they couldn’t tell if they were going to make it or lose it. Especially the night Block Drive caught fire. I know the next morning you could just see the fear: if they lost it, forget it – it would roll through the 108 like ….” The airport manager was at a loss for words to describe what that disaster might have looked like.
“Those are volunteers, right? You realize that, for those guys, this isn’t their main job.”
There were “lots of highs and lots of lows” in watching these crews fight wildfires, he says. He and Turner would see some suppression, then the flames would break out again, and then it looked like it was good again, he explains.
Christianson says this made it “really an emotional roller coaster” through the whole fire activity in, or near 108 Mile Ranch.
“I think once they did the back-burn, then they realized they could probably get a handle on it. But, one night I was [out at 101 Mile] talking to one of the senior chopper pilots … and he just said ‘oh, it doesn’t look good’. And when he said that to me, I thought: ‘Oh my God, the 103, and the houses and stuff ….”
However, these experiences of a lifetime included some incredibly positive images and individuals that he will keep with him in his mind’s eye forever and will hopefully balance the terrible ones. It was so great to see all the “tons of people” in his community who pulled out all the stops to help friends, neighbours and complete strangers alike, he explains.
“When the going got tough, the tough got going … and this was their neighbourhood. They buckled down – it didn’t matter the sleep, food, whatever – you know what, they were going to pull through it one way or another.”
Christianson adds this was particularly seen in the faces of the local fire department members, most of whom are retirement age volunteers working incredibly long days to protect their own neighbourhood.
“To see them go back at it and back at it, because they were so scared they were going to lose their neighbours’ and their own houses. I watched that over and over. It’s earth-shattering because if any burn down, they know they are going to have to live with it [the] rest of their lives.”
Another was seeing – and even videoing – a 1942 McDonald Douglas DC-3 aircraft taking off with smoke-jumpers bailing out the back of it into the fire with self-contained, 72-hour supply packs on their backs. To jump out into an explosion of flames with billowing dense smoke and such intense heat takes a highly-trained calibre of talented crew members, he explains.
“What amazed me was to think that in 1942 [this DC-3] was used by young guys who were 17, 18, 19 years old doing exactly the same thing, other than they were hearing guns as they jumped, bailing out the same aircraft, same door….”
“That was my life’s dream to see one. That was definitely a highlight of the whole thing, for me.”
While the history alone of these Second World War aircraft is “fantastic,” Christianson says he’d also always wanted to see a wartime DC-3 with that turbine conversion, as each one cost about $6-$7 million to convert.