During the Gustafsen Wildfire, 108 Mile Ranch Volunteer Fire Department Chief Marcelle Ried was in the thick of things.
He was at work at the West Fraser Mill when the fire was first called in, and not long after was called in for mutual aid to help supply water to those already fighting the fire.
It would be the start of several long weeks for Ried and the rest of the 108 Mile Ranch Volunteer Fire Department.
The first night, after a brief staging period at the 108, Ried and the crew helped evacuate sections of Abel Lake Rd. and Tatten Station Rd. They then set up sprinklers and the structural protection unit.
“We were out there pretty much all night waiting and at one point we actually retreated back here because the fire was getting so close and so intense,” says Ried.
The next several days would see little sleep for Ried and his firefighters.
“It was intense. A lot of things were going through my mind: What do I need for equipment? What are we going to be looking at? Is it going to be a couple of structure losses? Is it going to head straight for the 108?”
At one point, the fire was expected to head straight for the 108, prompting its evacuation. Ried and a representative from the office of the fire commissioner started work preparing a plan of attack for the 108.
They set up structure protection units along Block Drive on the Friday and lost two structures, despite arriving there before the fire.
“It was devastating. The first thought was oh my god, are we going to lose a portion of the 108?”
Fortunately, Ried says, the wind shifted.
‘To lose a home it is very disheartening. It’s very sad. They didn’t have time to grab personal belongings so you know everything that has been destroyed is in the ash now.”
As fire chief, Ried was co-ordinating not only his crews, but crews that arrived from around the province to help.
“It was an experience for myself, not having done it before and getting everyone else prepared and of course doing the evacuations,” he says.
On the night 100 Mile evacuated, July 9, Ried and 12 fire trucks were on the area around the 101 Mile hill to the 103, helping forestry crews keep the fire from crossing the highway.
“When I came up to the crest of the hill I was like, ‘Holy smokes.’ It was bad. You couldn’t see nothing. You could see the flames on the west side but the rest was just smoke. It was like being in a bad movie. Ash was flying across the highway. There was RCMP. It was just chaos.”
Still, crews managed to protect the highway and the 103 on the other side.
From that night on, Ried says his crews fell into a rhythm and were able to catch a little more sleep than they had been during the first days of the fire.
Ried stayed in the 108 with his wife and two daughters throughout the fire.
“When the evacuation came out my youngest went to a friend’s place in 83 Mile and she was extremely scared. My older daughter, her father lives out at Horse Lake so she went out there.”
He says being away was scarier for the girls than being there.
“We got them back here to help out, keep their minds occupied knowing full well they were safe until we needed to evacuate.”
His wife and girls worked at the 108 Golf Resort, helping to provide firefighters, RCMP members and others with food and a safe spot to stay.
Meanwhile, Ried was still at work with the fire department.
“Throughout the whole fire, I had to go to all the homes that were destroyed and do a property assessment as to what is burned, what is lost. After doing that for a day, coming back to the fire hall it was like, wow. It was very sad, very emotional I guess you might say and it still is, knowing that those people lost what they built for and what they’ve saved.”
On the lighter side of the fire, Ried and his crews were able to protect an ostrich farm, as well as encountered a group of pigs.
“They didn’t have any water so they used the water out of the fire truck and were spraying the pigs down. I’ve never seen pigs so happy before. They were literally biting the water, jumping up trying to get the water,” he says.
“That kind of gave us a we did a good job point of view.”
When the evacuation order on the 108 was lifted, Ried was on the side of the road waving residents back into their houses.
“We got everybody cleaned up and we all went up to the highway and greeted people as they came in. That was the best feeling — knowing people were coming to their homes.”
Since then, Ried says the fire department has still been busy attending to hotspots, but they are starting to quiet down.
He extends a thank you to all the volunteers, firefighters and others that helped to protect the 108.
“We’re a community that volunteers and when people step up to volunteer, other than the fire department, you couldn’t ask for any more.”
When asked to summarize the experience, Ried puts it like this:
“Pat McPhillips from the office of the Fire Commissioner … was a world of knowledge and I told him several times that the knowledge that I got from this fire is just pouring out of me. There is not enough room in my brain to hold it all. He asked would I do it again, and I said ‘absolutely’ and his next sentence was ‘Would you like to go to Alexis Creek tomorrow.’ So, that felt for me like I did a good job.”
Next up, Ried says he will be working with the community to help make it “fire smart.”