Into the Fire

Jason Unrau
September 14, 2019
When an out-of-control wildfire threatens everything you hold dear and public officials order you to flee because, they claim, there’s nothing anyone can do − what’s your response? Do you meekly submit? Or do you call you neighbours and try to protect what’s yours? And when politicians publicly denounce you, officials callously demand your dental records so they can identify your charred remains afterwards, police threaten to take away your children and then try to starve your whole community into submission – what then? These were the terrible choices faced last summer by the “Southsiders” of François Lake, B.C. Their decisions may surprise, or even shock you. But their determination should awe you, their courage inspire you, and the final outcome make you think twice the next time government officials demand you place your fate in their hands. In this meticulously reported exclusive, Jason Unrau brings you the epic tale of how the François Lake Southsiders had to face down not only 100-foot-high wildfire flames, but also the equally towering arrogance and indifference of the public agencies that should have been protecting and supporting them.

Into the Fire

Jason Unrau
September 14, 2019
When an out-of-control wildfire threatens everything you hold dear and public officials order you to flee because, they claim, there’s nothing anyone can do − what’s your response? Do you meekly submit? Or do you call you neighbours and try to protect what’s yours? And when politicians publicly denounce you, officials callously demand your dental records so they can identify your charred remains afterwards, police threaten to take away your children and then try to starve your whole community into submission – what then? These were the terrible choices faced last summer by the “Southsiders” of François Lake, B.C. Their decisions may surprise, or even shock you. But their determination should awe you, their courage inspire you, and the final outcome make you think twice the next time government officials demand you place your fate in their hands. In this meticulously reported exclusive, Jason Unrau brings you the epic tale of how the François Lake Southsiders had to face down not only 100-foot-high wildfire flames, but also the equally towering arrogance and indifference of the public agencies that should have been protecting and supporting them.
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Wolfram Hummel’s guide to fighting forest fires: “You drive right into the timber that’s burning. You take the Cats and you push the trees over the overburden, then you put trails in so you can drag through hoses and create escape routes. Then you start putting the fires out. But you can only do that when there’s no wind, because you’re right inside the fire. With winds, a fire can travel 10 or 15 miles in eight to ten hours. So you hope for no wind and you start protecting your property. And that’s what we did – we went into the fire.”

Wolfram’s father Helmut arrived from Germany in 1954 with $50 in his pocket and a dream to live like a pioneer in the fabled and unforgiving Canadian wilderness. With equal parts passion, independence and bulldogged determination he built Bear Hill Ranch, a 1,400-hectare mix of cattle-grazing land and harvestable timber along the south shore of François Lake, a long, narrow body of water running east-west in British Columbia’s vast northern Interior.

Last year it was Wolfram, 58, who found himself drawing on those vital family characteristics to save what his father had built from obliteration by a massive, out-of-control forest fire. “I had way too much to lose to just walk away from it all,” he says. “It’s not just your house – that you can rebuild – but if you lose everything else that you worked your whole life for, that your parents worked for, you’ll never get it back.”

Wolfram Hummel, François Lake Fire, Wolf Pack.
Wolfram Hummel, founding member and namesake of the François Lake Wolf Pack. (Image credit: Josias Tschanz)

Working just as tenaciously not far from Hummel and facing the same roaring, 100-foot high flames was neighbour Clint Lambert, whose own 1,800-hectare ranch lies due east of Hummel. “It was just crazy,” recalls Lambert. “Imagine working at your very peak for six weeks straight, without any break, without any rest.” Like Hummel, Lambert also spent most of the time atop his own bulldozer, assisted by family members, friends, neighbours and other locals. “I lost 10 to 15 pounds during that time, simply because I didn’t even have time to eat,” Lambert says.

Everything of value on Hummel and Lambert’s properties was threatened by wildfire, as were hundreds of other homes and ranches scattered across a handful of small settlements along the south side of François Lake. Hummel, Lambert and others who chose to stand their ground and fight the menace often pushed themselves to the edge of human endurance. For this, they became known as the Wolf Pack.

As they headed into the fire, however, the Wolf Pack found themselves facing not only a terrifying force of nature, but a mystifying and at times menacing force of government as well. At first, authorities withheld crucial resources needed to fight the fire on even terms. Then an evacuation order brought them under enormous pressure to abandon their properties and let everything burn. And when the Wolf Pack and others insisted on staying and fighting for what they’d built, official indifference shifted to outright hostility. Those who remained – and even those who merely tried to help those who remained – were bombarded with authoritative rebukes, grotesque threats and – in the most shocking turn of events − outright obstruction by law enforcement.

As this deadly wall of flames advanced towards everything they held dear, the desperate, over-worked and fiercely independent men and women of François Lake were asking themselves: Is our government working for us? Or against us?

François Lake Fire
Fireguards are essential to containing a wildfire.

This is the exclusive story of how the massive conflagration at François Lake was brought to heel, exactly one year ago today, thanks to the self-reliance, skill, experience and sheer grit of the brave “Southsiders” who stayed behind.

The wrath of Nadina and Verdun

On July 31, 2018, a lightning storm blew over Nadina Mountain Provincial Park, touching off several spot fires in this remote part of B.C. that’s about 500 km by road from Prince Rupert on the coast. Strong winds teased and stoked those first few fires, ultimately blowing several into raging infernos. Within a few days the Nadina Lake fire began heading east. Another fire originating near Verdun Mountain, sparked by an earlier lightning storm, was gathering speed from the south. Together they were slowly converging on the area between François Lake and the northern loop of the Nechako Reservoir (also known as Ootsa Lake). This 12-35-km wide neck of land is home to about 1,500 people – plus about 10 times that number of livestock – in several small, tightly-knit communities including Wistaria, Tatalrose, Grassy Plains, Southbank and Takysie.

Nadina-Verdun Fire Area, Francois Lake
Nadina Lake and Verdun Mountain fires, August-September 2018. (Map by Kitty McLeod/Artboard)

Within days, Nadina’s first treacherous tentacles began licking at the ranch lands, paddocks and woodlots on François Lake’s west end. Hummel, whose Bear Hill Ranch lies to east of this area, headed straight towards the fire. If the men and their volunteer teams failed to turn or halt this inferno, their ranches could burn; and behind them the hamlets of Tatalrose and Southbank would lie totally exposed.

“I had my machine out and we started fighting fire around the 10th or 11th of August,” Hummel says of his Caterpillar D7, a medium-sized bulldozer common on farms and ranches. “I got a call from guys on Ootsa Lake to see if I could help. It was coming past the reservoir from the west. When the fire got away from them, I knew it was coming to my place.”

Hummel, a bearded and burly giant of a man, used his Cat to carve broad swaths of barren fireguards out of the forest in hopes of arresting the fire’s advance so others could directly tackle the flames. Over the next few weeks, Hummel and Lambert alone would lay 20 km of 30-ft to 50-ft wide fireguards. “You’re right on the edge of it, so you try to make it easy for everyone to access the fire,” he says. “But you also have escape routes built right into the fire. Every quarter-mile you would put in an escape route so nobody would get trapped.”

On a windy day, the fire’s roar could be heard for kilometres. Pulling 16 to 20 hour days, the only time Hummel stopped working was when he could no longer see. “Because I don’t have any lights on my machine there’s only so late I could go, so I would park the machine and then study the fire during the night and try to figure out where it’s heading,” he recalls during a series of interviews with C2C Journal. As soon as it was light again, Hummel was back at the controls.

Alysha Hummel, Wolf Hummel Jr. Francois Lake, Wolf Pack
Tools of the trade: Wolf Pack volunteers Alysha Hummel and Wolf Hummel Jr, tackle spot fires with ‘piss cans.’

If leaving ever even occurred to Hummel, it was never a serious consideration. “My dad and mom were first generation,” he says. “Dad’s the one who put this ranch together, started it from scratch with nothing. And when I was old enough, I helped him and together we built it to what it is today.” And so he pressed on. The Wolf Pack volunteers worked in crews overseen by Hummel, Lambert and other local leaders. Those without their own heavy equipment scrambled over fallen timber with pumps, shovels and “piss cans” – backpack-style hand pumps – putting out hot spots and scanning the battlefront for new incursions by their fiery foe.

Cattleman Lambert also pushed his own D7 to “15, 16, 17 hour shifts” during those grim mid-August days as the fire continued its relentless push eastward. On August 22, however, he was finally forced to abandon his dozer in the bush after the starter blew. “We just couldn’t get ahead to stop it. There were 60 kilometre-an-hour winds, I was getting hit with charcoal shot out of the brush,” says Lambert. “We pushed a 45-foot guard but once the fire got up into the canopy it took off again for another three kilometres. We lost the fire that night about 6:30 pm and pulled out when it broke through our guards. Thankfully, my machine was OK but they lost three houses over at Takysie. It was just a really bad day.”

As Lambert and Hummel were forced into a fighting retreat, help often seemed tantalizingly close, yet maddeningly out of reach. With hundreds of fires burning across the province, B.C.’s Wildfire Service, the provincial forest-fire-fighting body, made its decisions on how and where to allocate men and material in a way that left François Lake’s population largely on its own. “The forest service was in a helicopter above just watching us fight the fire,” says Lambert. “They didn’t call for any other helicopters with any buckets to assist or anything. They just kind of observed and watched. It was frustrating.”

Clint Lambert, Wolf Pack, Francois Lake Fire
After suffering a blown starter, Clint Lambert’s D7 was soon back in action.

“We were being left on our own,” echoes Derek Blackwell, a rancher and logger whose 400-hectare Wistaria property lay near the front end of the fire and who also led a Wolf Pack crew. “We worked on the Nadina fire for a week or 10 days before they sent about four Wildfire Service guys. They worked really hard but they were overwhelmed. It was just too much fire and not enough fire fighters.”

Those hovering helicopters − near enough to hear and sometimes see, yet of no practical help – came to symbolize the complicated and often maddening official responses that shaped local recollections of what’s now known as the François Lake Fire.

Leave it to the experts – just get out

The summer of 2018 was a bad one for wildfires in western Canada. In B.C. over 2,100 fires would eventually consume 1.35 million hectares of forest and fields, and cost taxpayers $615 million. It was the worst year on record in the province. The smoke from these conflagrations would blanket much of eastern B.C. and Alberta throughout July and August, blotting out the sun for hundreds of kilometres downwind.

The François Lake region alone was hit by dozens of scattershot evacuation orders, including one on August 15 that covered most of the area between François Lake and Nechako Reservoir – the Southside. While these pronouncements declare all concerned “must leave the area immediately,” (bold in original) this claim has no legal effect on competent adults. Unless a child is involved, an evacuation notice can properly be considered a suggestion rather than an order. But those who stay behind, of course, do so at their own risk.

Bill Miller was chair of the sprawling Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako at the time, and signed off on all these evacuation orders. A rancher and logger who lives about 30 km west of Burns Lake on the north side of François Lake, Miller says decisions to evacuate “are made jointly” by the emergency operations centre, which consists of regional district staff, emergency personnel, wildfire management, and the RCMP. Interestingly, ordinary local residents – those whose properties could burn and who therefore stand to lose everything; people, in other words, with actual skin in the game – are kept outside this decision-making loop.

“There were pretty well fires everywhere,” says Miller of those tough days. “About 45 areas within Bulkley-Nechako were either under alert or [an evacuation] order. After the lightning storm went through that lit up most of the fires, at one point there were 33 fires on the landscape.” Within a 40 km radius of Burns Lake alone, more than 240,000 hectares were ablaze.

On August 22, the day of Lambert’s dramatic breakdown in the woods, the Nadina and Verdun fires began to stretch their legs and Miller signed another, much-larger evacuation notice that covered both sides of the Nechako Reservoir. It was a sign things were going from bad to worse very quickly. And suddenly Hummel, Lambert, Blackwell and all the others who’d been able to ignore previous evacuation notices as minor irritants found themselves on the wrong side of official wisdom. It would prove to be a massive culture shock.

“Go to Hell”

“I’ve never been in a situation in British Columbia where so many people had chosen not to leave their place on an evacuation order, and chose to stay behind,” says B.C. Wildfire Service Incident Commander Peter Laing. “You want to talk about independent and self-reliant, my goodness. And strong-willed, too.”  As commander for what was dubbed the Babine Complex − the Nadina and Verdun fires, as well as a third, human-started blaze further east – Laing had met with about 100 concerned locals in a community hall in Grassy Plains a few days after the August 15 evacuation order. He says it’s the first time he’d ever held a public meeting in an area that was supposed to be emptied of its residents.

Peter Laing, B.C. Wildfire Service, Francois Lake Fire
B.C. Wildfire Service Incident Commander Peter Laing.

With nearly 30 years spent fighting forest fires, Laing has seen and done plenty. After starting his career in Yukon Territory, Laing joined the B.C. Wildfire Service’s smokejumper unit, parachuting into hot spots as the “tip of the spear” in the fight against wildfires. “You try not to land in the fire,” Laing says laconically in describing those early days. “It was a great job, I was always amazed that I got a pay cheque.”

Nowadays, Laing is the guy who tells others what risks they’re allowed to take. And at the Grassy Plains community hall, directly in Nadina’s path, Laing found his audience had little interest in leaving. Rather, the community’s mood was overwhelmingly to stay and fight, whatever the risks. Plus, they wanted Laing to help them by supplying the necessary provincial manpower – B.C.’s Wildfire Service typically employs about 1,600 seasonal workers – and heavy equipment.

Laing, who commanded operations from Burns Lake on the north side of François Lake, today maintains he did all he could under the circumstances. “Everyone is screaming for resources,” he says in an interview. “But the reality of the situation was there were a lot of fires burning in the province and, while ours was a high priority, that doesn’t mean we can peel other resources from somewhere else. There’s not enough in all of Canada for that. I was doing whatever I could to get resources there.”

The Wildfire Service’s senior fire management specialist, Dana Hicks, also spoke at the heated Grassy Plains meeting – but had a more pointed message for the assembled locals. “I recognize you’re fighting for your livelihoods and dreams and I understand that,” the CBC reported Hicks as saying. “But helicopters, bulldozers – nothing will be able to save us if these fires start to move.” Of course, the fires already were moving, had been for weeks, and the amateurs fighting them had been doing all they could to halt or at least slow their progress. They just needed more help.

Wolfram Hummel, Wolf Pack, Francois Lake Fire
Pulling 16 to 20 hour days: Wolf Pack volunteers take a breather.

The issue also briefly caught the attention of B.C. Premier John Horgan, but not in the way François Lake’s locals might have hoped. Horgan told reporters that anyone who stayed behind during an evacuation notice was “compromising our ability to address the fire.” But since the province had already decided to “address” this fire by deploying virtually all its resources elsewhere and just letting the thing burn, Horgan’s comments amounted to condescending gibberish. Still, according to all the folks who knew better – or claimed to – the only smart move was to get out of town as fast as possible.

It was a message that just wasn’t selling. “They told us not to try to fight the fire. They told us to evacuate, to get out. And I told them to go to Hell,” says Hummel. “We’re not leaving, we’re fighting till the very end. We did this on our own time, with our own costs. We were asking for help from the Wildfire Service and they wouldn’t give it to us.” According to Lambert, government officials such as Laing habitually underestimated local abilities. “This isn’t the first wildfire that most of us have ever been in,” he says. “Myself, I’ve been to five or six fairly big fires. One of the main reasons all of us stayed here on the Southside is that…actual trained people from the forest service just weren’t here.”

“I do believe forestry was shocked, as well as the government officials, that they couldn’t chase us out of here,” says 73-year-old Pixie Robertson, who also defied the evacuation order, remaining behind to defend her ranch near Takysie Lake. “The police came here twice and said I had to leave ‘because it was going to burn me up’.” She too, was having none of it. “‘Well, I’ll take my chances,’ I told them. ‘Get the Hell outta my place’.” She also pointed out that, “We have people here who know how to fight a fire.”

To describe Robertson as feisty is to underplay her drive and conviction. Universally known as Pixie since moving to François Lake over 40 years ago from Wyoming, the most ruggedly individualistic of the U.S.’s rugged western states, Pixie was probably the bluntest of all the outspoken locals, repaying the government’s growing contempt in kind. She notes with incredulity that, “They even threatened [the ranchers and loggers] at the meeting that they would have to pay for any trees they knocked down in the course of fighting the fire.” Official threats of this kind would become more common as the fire progressed.

The infantilization of society reaches François Lake

It has become depressingly commonplace for public authorities to assume the fundamental incompetence of anyone not part of a professional community. In our age of rampant credentialism, no task is too simple or trivial to require “training” and “certification” with, of course, a ceaseless fixation on “safety”. Ordinary people are regarded as useless at best and, whenever anything bad happens, either inconveniently in the way or an outright menace to themselves or others.

It’s for this reason that individuals and communities are repeatedly told they cannot and must not tackle any problems that come their way. Proper assistance in times of emergency can only be rendered by trained professionals. And only on terms dictated and monitored by desk-bound bureaucrats.

We see this theme repeated in endless variations by governments of all levels. Canadians are incapable of saving for their own retirement, so the Canada Pension Plan must be expanded. We can’t be trusted to eat a proper diet, so unhealthy food must be taxed or labelled or otherwise denounced. School bake sales and other charitable pursuits are banned or regulated into oblivion as public health hazards. No one can operate a motorboat without a licence. You need provincial certification to pour a glass of wine at your curling club. Quebeckers are forbidden to change their own flat tires on the side of the highway; only a trained tow truck driver can do that.

This progressive infantilization of modern society is robbing all of us of the ability to solve our own problems. And even to safeguard our very lives in times of crisis. Vancouver and Montreal, for example, have banned traditional wood fireplaces as health threats, without any thought to their crucial role in times of power outages and winter storms. 

At François Lake, however, it seems more was at work than mere condescension. As the fire threat grew, the stress levels rose and the locals’ determination to stay remained unshakeable, some public authorities went beyond merely making bold-faced pronouncements. If they couldn’t cajole or bamboozle the locals into giving up their quest, then perhaps more dramatic action was required.

How far would you go to save everything you own?

Much of the growing conflict between the properly-authorized government position that it was time to cut-and-run and the determination of the local community to stand and fight, lay in differing perceptions of acceptable risk. “When the locals started fighting the fire on their own, that was a huge concern for me,” says Laing. “The risk they were putting themselves in.”

“It’s like [the Wildfire Service] didn’t want to fight it and they didn’t know how,” scoffs a tough-to-please Pixie. “The forestry guys that they hire, they’re just young college kids.” Colloquially known as “Red Shirts” for their crimson tops (or perhaps comically for their interchangeably rules-bound behaviour), just one fallen tree could apparently paralyze a whole crew of provincial Red Shirts.

“I was going up to my sister’s [one evening] to check on the place and there were four of them in two trucks,” Pixie recalls. “I came up to them and said, ‘What are you boys doing?’ They replied: ‘We’re waiting because a tree fell over the road up there.’” The crew was immobilized by safety regulations prohibiting them from using a chainsaw after dark. Undaunted, Pixie got back in her vehicle, retrieved a chainsaw, returned, single-handedly bucked the log lying across the road and pushed the pieces into the ditch. On her way back down the mountain she slowed by the Red Shirts. “The tree’s gone,” she told them. “You can get up there now.”

Asked about the incident, Laing admits liability concerns often constrain what he can ask his workers to do. “We don’t have the luxury to take such risks, so in terms of the chainsaw, yeah – we don’t run chainsaw at night for a good reason,” Laing explains. “It’s a high-risk activity. If somebody gets cut you can’t airlift them.” Risk, Laing explains, has to be viewed broadly, over time and space. “You can get away with something a hundred times,” he notes. “But that hundred-and-first time, someone gets killed. I have a responsibility to get people home at the end of the shift.”

Laing’s position is understandable; and it’s hardly surprising. The top priority of the entire rescue community over the past couple decades has shifted from saving victims’ lives at all costs to protecting and securing the wellbeing of the first responders themselves. Such rules, however, don’t apply to anyone volunteering their own time fighting for their own property with their own equipment.

Pixie Robertson, Francois Lake Fire
Outspoken and feisty: 73-year-old Pixie Robertson.

“A guy like Clint and Wolfram, they’re very capable bush people,” acknowledges Laing. “In terms of running a chainsaw, not all of our people have that level of experience. Loggers and farmers take risks all the time; we don’t have the luxury to do that.” And so they worked sunup to sundown in punishing conditions. As their reputation for fearlessness and determination grew, the Wildfire Service and the remaining locals started referring to Hummel, Lambert, Blackwell and the other do-it-yourself wildfire fighters as the Wolf Pack. Says Laing with respect: “Wolf was really…this larger-than-life character. Very powerful. Very determined.”

Hummel is not quite so generous in returning compliments. “They have too many safety meetings,” he snaps of the Wildfire Service’s daily routine. “First in the morning amongst themselves, then another safety meeting among the machine operators, and then when they go into the bush they have another safety meeting.” And by 4:00 or 4:30, he snorts, “They’re loading up the equipment, already going home. So they’re basically only fighting the fire from 11:00 to 4:00.” The long northern summer evening twilights offered the Wolf Pack light enough to keep slogging for many hours after the Red Shirts, working bankers’ hours, had packed up and left.

Fellow Wolf Packer Blackwell, however, distinguishes between Wildfire Service workers and the strict regulations they labour under. “All the ones I worked with were really good,” he says. His wife, Jenn, happily cooked hundreds of meals for those wildfire personnel who did work the Southside of François Lake. But he points out a key difference in attitude. “When you’re fighting for everything you ever worked for, you’re going to be a little more aggressive on the firefighting,” he says. “You have to be fairly aggressive or else you don’t get a whole lot done.” For Blackwell and the other locals, the personal stakes were intensely real. “We own three woodlots right in front of the fires and they all burned completely up,” he says. “We probably lost a couple million dollars in timber. It was kind of my plan for the future. I could’ve made a good living just logging the woodlots.”

How does a 70 percent failure rate sound?

As the private losses mounted and the fires grew and advanced, the official government position flipped from coldly rationing resources to perhaps considering something a bit grander. A couple of days after Miller’s sweeping evacuation order of August 22, Laing convened a meeting with the Wolf Pack at the house of another local rancher, Kenny Nielsen, to discuss new strategies. One topic on the menu, according to Lambert, was a controlled backburn. Backburning is a technique in which unburnt land is intentionally set ablaze ahead of an advancing wildfire in an effort to starve it of fuel and oxygen. It’s a rarely-used, high-risk manoeuvre and can only be attempted during favourable winds. A sudden shift in the breeze and hundreds of homes and businesses in the fire’s path could be wiped out by a deliberate, government-set inferno.

“It’s all about timing,” Laing explains. “As that fire gets closer, it’s sucking a lot of oxygen…so you wait and then you light it at the right time and it pulls the fire right back into itself.” Fighting fire with fire in this way requires incendiary “ping-pong balls” shot out of an aircraft or flame-thrower-like equipment called drip torches that either hang from helicopters or are used by ground forces. Mastering the technique, says Laing, is honed through trial and error. “Very experienced burners have very strong technical skills,” he says. “There’s also an art form to it as well, because so much of it is nuanced. You have to be a great abstract thinker to understand how all the pieces will come together and generally that comes through experience – so most of the people who are accomplished burners have been doing it a long time and they’ve probably made a lot of mistakes along the way.”

While Laing claims he never specifically promoted a backburn during the Nielsen meeting, Lambert says he spent time privately in the ranch house’s dining room with a “backburn specialist” Laing had invited. “He was this big Yugoslavian guy and he was kind of bragging to me that he had a good [success] record,” Lambert recalls. “I asked him what it was – he said 30 percent. And I thought, ‘Holy Crap, that’s a terrible record.’ But he seemed to be quite proud of it.” What especially disturbed Lambert was the man’s attitude: “I would say he really liked fire. His eyes just lit up every time he talked about backburning.”

Clint Lambert, Wolfram Hummel, Wolf Pack, Francois Lake Fire
Before and after the Wolf Pack’s fireguarding efforts.

Deeply concerned by this gambling attitude, Lambert says he “played the dumb farmer” to find out more. He learned that the province had already pushed through fireguards to the east, or downwind, of his and Hummel’s properties, suggesting they could be sacrificed if a backburn was used. Further questioning revealed another key fact: “They can light fire on your private property if it’s abandoned. But they can’t light a backburn if somebody’s in the house.” When he realized that, Lambert says, “The light kind of came on for me. Maybe that’s why they wanted everybody out, so they had a free rein.”

While B.C. Wildfire Service was often maddeningly and unapologetically risk-averse when it came to running chainsaws at night or working past tea time, here was a potential government scheme that, should it go awry, could devastate the entire area. Once again, the people with skin in the game felt they had no control over the process, while they’d have to bear all the consequences if things went wrong. It was another example of how local trust in their public decision-makers was fast eroding.

Some even began to suspect a connection between the evacuation orders, the absence of Wildfire Service resources and the possibility of a backburn. Pixie, the chainsaw-wielding senior, isn’t shy about sharing her hunches. “They tried to force us all out of here because then they could just let [the fires] rage,” she asserts. And while talk of a backburn soon disappeared, its mere suggestion created yet another reason for the locals to stay put, stiffening their resolve while deepening suspicions. As Nechako Liberal MLA John Rustad told the CBC: “For whatever reason, there is not necessarily the trust that [residents’ homes] will be protected and so they feel obligated to stay behind.”

With the possibility of a backburn plan shelved, the region’s fate once again hung on the success of the Wolf Pack and its unsung network of supporters. It is at this point that the battle of the François Lake Fire, as told by the Wolf Pack itself, shifts from a tale of government indifference and questionable judgement to one of outright animosity.

“You didn’t really know whose side the police were on”

From his office Mike Robertson had a panoramic view of looming disaster. Robertson is business manager of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, an Indigenous people with 17 small reserves scattered across the Southside, whose main headquarters is near François Lake’s Southbank ferry terminal, midway along the lake’s 110 km expanse.

François Lake Fire
The François Lake Fire threatened an estimated 15,000 Southside cattle.

Looking to the west Robertson, who is Pixie’s stepson and just as blunt, could see smoke from the Nadina fire darkening the sky; to the south towards the Nechako Reservoir, black smoke from the Verdun fire was now billowing up over a ridge. A fiery noose was tightening.

As the fires closed in, the ferry terminal at Southbank became a vital link to the rest of the world. Working 24 hours a day, the MV François Forester ferried a Biblical-scale exodus of cattle and other livestock across the lake to the safety of the north side. Lambert himself trucked 500 head of his cattle out of harm’s way. All told, an estimated 10,000 head were evacuated in another incredible, untold volunteer effort. As the situation turn grimmer, however, the Wildfire Service began ferrying what men and equipment it had on the Southside to the relative safety of Burns Lake on the other side as well.

As this northward flight was occurring, however, the evacuation order suddenly became something more than just a suggestion as the RCMP set up a roadblock at the entrance to the northern terminal of the now-vital ferry. In this way, access to the vessel became a lever to enforce the evacuation order and shut down the Wolf Pack. Movement north escaping the flames was unimpeded, but anyone attempting to return to the Southside with supplies like fuel or food was either denied access or found themselves wasting valuable time pleading with the Mounties for a permit.

ferry MV François Forester
The ferry MV François Forester was a vital link for Southsiders, until the RCMP imposed a blockade on the north terminal.

“That was totally uncalled for and really put everybody in a bind,” says Robertson. “Some were trying to bring fuel for generators and machines, others were going to check on animals, but they wouldn’t let them pass.” The scene was “a bloody mess and nobody really knew who was in charge at that point.”

Rex Glanville, another long-time resident of the Francois Lake area who now keeps a cabin at Noralee, on the lake’s northwest end, confirms Robertson’s account. The RCMP “weren’t allowing fuel and basic necessities across for the people who stayed behind,” Glanville says. “It was really surreal because when you figure things couldn’t get any worse, they’d tighten the screws more, waiting at the ferry line making calls as to who could go and who couldn’t.” Glanville’s children were also engaged in efforts to fight the fire and protect property – his daughter Tasha  at a local sawmill and his son Jay as a heavy equipment apprentice-mechanic working to keep already taxed machines operable on the Southside.

Long-time resident of the Francois Lake area, Rex Glanville.

Now, Glanville couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “[There was] a farmer trying to get over to save his livestock and they’d be giving him a hard time and another fellow with a bulldozer, they wouldn’t allow him to bring fuel over, it was hard to describe their thinking,” he says. “The whole thing just gave you an uneasy feeling in your stomach because you didn’t really know whose side [the police] were on.”

The RCMP had, in effect, imposed a blockade on law-abiding, taxpaying Canadian citizens whose sole transgression was attempting to save their own properties using their own equipment, money and sweat. The RCMP did not respond to multiple interview requests regarding their efforts to control the ferry or why they chose to enforce the evacuation order in this way.

François Lake Fire meets social media

Area residents both inside and outside the evacuation zones relied on social media to voice their frustrations, cheer on the Wolf Pack and spread valuable information the Wildfire Service couldn’t or didn’t provide. Ootsa Lake resident and well-known local outfitter Catherine Van Tine Marcinek (it’s her house in the striking photograph at the top of this story) took to Facebook to tell the outside world that locals who stayed behind were no fools:

I just want to make it clear to the rest of the world who sees this that we’re not a bunch of suicidal hillbillies…(the ferry) is NOT the only way to our community and certainly not the only way out! We are a logging community with roads that wind and connect every community over here…I can travel to many other parts either by the main road or go the back way, winding down logging roads, across hayfields, through and over bridges made by the locals. Yes, the same locals who are now fighting these fires!

Burns Lake resident Warren Chapman’s Hell Yeah Burns Lake-the Lakes District Facebook page sheds more light on the damage being wreaked, and how authorities continued to hamper local efforts:

The wind picked up considerably yesterday from SW, causing the Verdun Fire to jump from treetop to treetop…When I was in town this afternoon at the local saw shop, one of the owners was on the phone crying softly. Her husband is over on Southside fighting the Verdun fire to save his family’s ranch and he had just called her to say that a neighbour’s ranch had just gone up in flames…The RCMP has the ferry blocked off…and yesterday turned back a fuel truck organized by the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, at its own expense…the fuel was for some ranchers for their heavy equipment who are fighting this monster of the fire.

In rare moments when Lambert wasn’t atop his bulldozer, he also took to social media to ask for additional volunteers and offer progress reports:

we r getting another neighbor to join us with his D7 so now that will be 3 D7’s and a hoe helping with the guard Good thing we went out to the fire tonight because some cows were trapped between a cattle guard and the fire and we were able to open gates and get them out of there. It’s always a good day when u can help save your neighbors cows

As Van Tine Marcinek noted in her post, while the ferry was the quickest and most direct route for affected Southside communities, it wasn’t the only way in or out. “We call ourselves Southsiders or the Independent Republic of Southside. We say we’re independent but we look after each other,” Robertson says. “So when they told us, ‘Do not take fuel over to the Southside,’ we told them to ‘Fuck off.’” After being stymied at the ferry, the Cheslatta Carrier Nation bypassed the RCMP’s blockade by trucking 20,000 litres of diesel around the lake on logging roads. This innovation kept the generators and pumps running in town, which were necessary for powering sprinklers to pre-soak homes in the fire’s path.

Francois Lake Fire, Bob McDonald, Southsider
A do-it-yourself fuel convey kept the pumps, generators and heavy equipment running on the Southside, despite an RCMP blockade.

The actual number of volunteers on the Southside has never been firmly established. “I don’t think they knew how many people were actually here,” says Lambert “[The government’s] highest estimate was 100.” He figures 200 or 250 is more accurate, most of whom were either working with the various Wolf Pack crews, or helping to support them. Whatever their number, however, without access to more heavy machinery of the sort parked and out of reach at Burns Lake, this was a fight the locals could not win.

The “suicide run”

The scarcity of critical resources had already forced Lambert, Hummel and friend Cody Reid to take a big gamble. As the fire progressed, they realized the Wolf Pack needed more and bigger equipment. On the day before the blanket evacuation order, they set out on what Lambert would later call on social media “a little bit of a suicide run.” Lambert knew of a logging contractor with a massive D8 on the lake’s north side. “We were desperate to get that,” he says. “So we picked a day with no wind blowing and drove through the fire.”

Wolf Pack, Francois Lake Fire
A little bit of a suicide run: Screen grabs from the Wolf Pack’s August 19, 2018 mission through the flames to bring back a much-needed D8 dozer.

With Reid and Hummel in the lead pickup − chainsaws ready to clear the dozens of trees that had fallen across the road − Lambert followed close behind in his transport truck, dragging a lowbed into the Nadina fire for the expected eight-hour round trip on a route hugging the west end of François Lake. “The heat wasn’t bad actually and without any wind we could just drive through the areas that were active,” he says. “But the smoke was really bad in there and sometimes I couldn’t see in front of the truck, but we had to have that equipment to be able to build fireguards to stop fire.” The short video clips of the suicide run are harrowing.

Calling in a fleet of heavy equipment – then sending it away again

As Robertson was organizing the clandestine fuel delivery and the Wolf Pack was on its suicide run, MLA Rustad located a huge fleet of privately-owned fire suppression equipment, owned by oilfield safety company Safeguard Advanced Training & Consulting Ltd. Rustad convinced the Wildfire Service to get Safeguard to send two-dozen trailer loads of pumps and 10 km of coiled hoses from its headquarters in Fort St. John over 650 km to Burns Lake. They arrived on August 23.

What seemed like a major breakthrough, however, quickly descended into acrimony and farce, as Laing and the firm began arguing over the usefulness of Safeguard’s equipment. Part of the problem was that the equipment was reportedly too powerful for the available water sources; if the pumps were placed in area ponds or lakes, provincial regulations would first require an environmental assessment. When every hour counts, it seems a government solution is just weeks or months away.

Incident Commander Peter Laing, Francois Lake Fire
Incident Commander Peter Laing explains his decision to send away Safeguard’s massive supply of water pumps and hoses to angry residents at Burns Lake on August 25, 2018.

“The sky-high view is that the politicians essentially got us out there, then decided not to use us,” scoffs Safeguard owner Jeff Kelly, who was eventually told his services were not required. “Let’s put it this way, we believe there was no legitimate attempt to put us out in the proper areas.” Kelly’s suing the province over its decision to turn him away. “Our decision was right,” counters Laing, pointing out that no homes were lost after he sent Safeguard packing. “But,” he adds, “I have to be careful what I say because of the litigation.”

A small protest group gathered to witness Safeguard’s fleet driving out of town on August 25. Mostly women and children whose fathers, sons and brothers were on the other side of François Lake fighting the fire, they held up homemade placards declaring “let help in,” “stop the lies” and “Southside Strong” as the truckers pulled their horns in solidarity. “It was heartbreaking for the locals and heartbreaking to us,” says Kelly. The still-murky and litigious  Safeguard episode remains a bizarre chapter in the François Lake Fire saga.

The Postmen: Dunkirk in the B.C. woods

With police maintaining their blockade at the ferry’s north terminal, residents on both sides of François Lake continued to find new ways to keep what machinery they had up and running − just as they found other ways to fight the fire. “I dropped my boat in the water and so did many others to help ferry supplies,” says Northsider Glanville. A spontaneous Dunkirk-style flotilla of fishing boats and other pleasure craft was thus mobilized to ship fuel and goods across the lake. “My brother has an aluminum Lund and it was so full of batteries, hoses and fuel that water was coming over the sides of his boat and it was so smoky he had to use a compass,” says Lambert. “And he wasn’t the only one. All kinds of people were running supplies across illegally at night.”

This inland navy was yet another organization of citizenry fighting both a ravaging fire and hostile authorities. Some of them were part of a group known as the Postmen, who had been organized the year before to deliver relief supplies to fire-stricken areas, and who had already been active during the Francois Lake fire.

As the Wolf Pack fought the blaze, the Postmen kept them supplied with fuel. “It’s crazy that people who want to stay and fight for their homes were treated as if they were under siege,” says MLA Rustad. “It was a very unsafe situation.” Rustad himself was granted just one permit to cross the ferry during the crisis. “I tried to go in several other times but I was denied access,” he recalls. “The Postmen said ‘Hey, we can sneak you in,’ but as an elected government representative I didn’t want to break the rules.”

The François Lake-area locals’ flagrant and continued disregard for official pronouncements did not go unnoticed. Outfitter Van Tine Marcinek says a provincial conservation officer came to her door one afternoon with a rather peculiar proposal. In exchange for “allowing her” to defy the evacuation order, he wanted her dental records. “I asked, ‘My dental records? For what reason?’” recounts Van Tine Marcinek. “‘So we can identify your charred remains when that wall of fire comes over the hill and takes you.’ He actually said your charred remains and it still plays with my head. My mother, who is 80, was standing beside me and he says, looking at her, ‘So what are you doing?’ It was horrible. My mother was scared.”  And, she adds, “Who the heck keeps their dental records at home anyways?” Officials subsequently denied stooping to such depths, although she says she still has the dental record request form handed to her that afternoon.

Even more chillingly, Lambert says the RCMP took his 16-year-old son to town for several hours, before returning him. “It was really unbelievable,” he says. “[The cops] were running around town trying to scare everybody: that the fire was going to be on us in two days, that we were all going to die. I don’t know how many times I heard that.”

Defeat and disaster loom over Bear Hill Ranch

Despite the heroics of the Wolf Pack, the Postmen and the hundreds of other volunteers who pitched in to help fight the François Lake Fire, the inferno continued its inexorable, two-pronged approach towards the communities lying in the neck of land between François Lake and the Nechako Reservoir. On August 25 light rain offered a hint of relief. Then the next day the winds eased and the temperature turned noticeably cooler − another welcome change after nearly a month of hot, dry weather. Yet the fires marched on. By August 29 Nadina had finally crested a steep rock-faced ridge running east-west overlooking the Southside ranch lands. Hummel’s house was only a few kilometres from the flames; some of his own woodlots near Isaac Lake (see attached map) were now ablaze. At this point the two foes paused to take each other’s measure, with the forces of nature holding the commanding heights. And yet, for the first time, the terrain was finally in the Wolf Pack’s favour.

The Nadina Lake wildfire crests a ridge near François Lake. Earlier action by B.C. Wildfire Service could have stopped the fire much earlier − and much farther away from local communities.

The movement of wind being pushed uphill on a hot day makes a wildfire’s journey up a slope quick and violent; and the intense heat from the fire’s crown can turn anything in its path to kindling. Burning on a downslope, however, is significantly slower because the air itself is naturally decelerating and the rising hot air reduces the amount of oxygen available at ground level. Even the length of individual flames is curtailed by this effect.

Because of these factors, instead of racing downhill from the ridge to engulf Hummel’s beloved ranch, the fire all but stopped. In fact, as a few burning trees tumbled down off the cliffs towards civilization, the resulting flames would actually creep back up the ridge – creating a natural backburn effect. “It kind of stalled up there for a little bit,” says Lambert. “That was some good luck.”

The fire’s temporary halt on the very cusp of its apparent victory over the assembled human combatants was widely considered something of a miracle, even if physics and geography played key roles. But as the Wolf Pack buckled down for one last stand, something even more miraculous occurred. The cavalry finally appeared. B.C. Wildfire Service showed up to the Nadina fight with water-bucket helicopters on August 30. First just one, then six.

“As the fire was becoming a more real threat to their properties, that was when the resources were engaged more,” says Laing matter-of-factly. With several other fires in the province having been subdued, it was finally the Southside’s turn to receive its share of government assistance. Characteristically, Hummel has a different explanation for why they waited until the last possible moment: “They could see we were catching it.”

With water at last being dumped from the sky, the Wolf Pack redoubled its efforts. After all the tactical retreats and setbacks, they were finally able to meet the enemy head-on in a fair fight. “We were now fighting right in the fire but only because we had the air support,” Hummel remembers. “I guess wildfire services decided they’d better come in, full stop, or they could be in big trouble.” But, as he points out, “You can’t put a fire out with just helicopters, you have to have that ground crew coming behind. That’s where we had to go with the machines, back into the fire.”

François Lake Fire
The cavalry arrives: At the last moment, B.C. Wildfire Service finally threw its helicopters at the François Lake Fire.

For safety-conscious Laing, even this final phase was fraught with risk. “It was really stressful for the pilots, they were bucketing blind and I really hoped there was no one down there,” he says. “We were kind of running with their bush smarts and intuition to stay out of the way.” Fixed-wing air tankers were out of the question, Laing says, “Because 5,000 gallons of water coming through the trees, just the weight of that water coming down on a human is deadly.” Hearing some of the Wolf Pack’s two-way radio chatter was equally nerve-racking, recalls Laing. “There were times when I heard panicked radio transmissions coming from that area. At times it was really hard to know what was going on − obviously, they have a way higher tolerance for risk,” says the former smokejumper. “I’m not a religious man, but the fact nobody got hurt or killed over there is a miracle.”

Hummel retorts that the Wolf Pack’s work in the fire amounted to a “calculated risk” and that all the volunteers were free to back away from danger whenever they wanted. And as thankful as he and the rest of the Wolf Pack were for the last-minute decision to deploy helicopters, Hummel notes that the closing-act drama could have been avoided if only they’d arrived weeks earlier. “It was frustrating because a couple of times it wouldn’t have taken much to slow [the fire] down,” he says. “It was tough with no air support.”

One fact not in dispute is that the application of significant air power combined with the Wolf Pack’s ground-level persistence finally halted and vanquished the fire. For the next few days, the official government forces worked alongside the Southside guerrillas. And with surprising speed, the community’s outlook shifted from contemplating the complete loss of their homes and property to a return to normal life on both the Nadina and Verdun fronts. On August 31, evacuation orders covering the north side of François Lake were removed, and by September 4 more than half the Southside homes had their evacuation orders lifted as well. Those who evacuated were able to come back home.

Finally, on September 14 − one year ago today − the Wolf Pack declared victory. Hummel recounts the moment in characteristically understated terms. “Basically I told my crew, ‘OK, that’s enough, you can go home now. Go back to your jobs or whatever you have to do,’” he says. “These people took time away from their jobs, their families, running their businesses. It was time for them to go home.”

The same day, Lambert posted this on Facebook:

Today was the last day of the wolf pack we were told that the forest service will take over from here with a couple of local crews to finish the mop up. Like to thank everyone that came and worked along side us and thank everyone that donated fuel, groceries and money it was greatly appreciated and thank you for all the thoughts hugs and prayers love this community!!!!

Though all major fires were out or contained, the threat was not entirely extinguished. As late as October 18 Lambert says he was still putting out spot fires on his property that flared up from hot coals buried in the underbrush.

The toll

The Wolf Pack’s triumph seems an utterly astounding result. The Verdun and Nadina fires had burned for six full weeks. Together they ended up consuming over 135,000 hectares and continuously threatened to devour homes, ranches, businesses and villages. For most of this time, the François Lake Southsiders stood virtually alone. A few indomitable men, their bulldozers, a 73-year-old woman, a pugnacious First Nations business manager and a still-largely-unnamed collection of 200 or more committed but scantily equipped volunteers had kept the flames at bay when the combined forces of the B.C. government would not or could not.

The toll from the François Lake Fire was 10 homes and ranches destroyed. And while this was heartbreaking for their owners and families, more important is the fact no one was killed. All livestock that wasn’t evacuated, survived. An entire community remains immensely grateful.

“The big story is the people who stayed and fought the fires, they literally saved our community from going up in smoke,” Robertson says of the Wolf Pack, the Postmen and all the other brave individuals who remained to fight when everyone else told them to flee. “If they hadn’t stayed behind we wouldn’t have anything left. There’s about three or four hundred homes that we would’ve lost.”

“The system needs a significant overhaul”

Following the near-miss at François Lake, Lambert was elected to the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako’s Board of Directors. He says he intends to use his role to organize his community to tackle future wildfires and spur necessary change at the provincial level. The critical thing, Lambert says, is to speed up decision-making so new fires can be tackled immediately after they’re spotted. A working committee has been struck and, he explains, “We’re also setting up our own initial attack volunteer fire group, so if a fire does come and we see the fire we’ll report it to the forest service, but we will go and fight the fire and we don’t care if the forest service gives us approval or not, because we’ve seen what happens when the forest service is left to deal with things.”

Former regional district chair Miller agrees. “You can’t wait for the bureaucracy to bring in resources from outside, you’ve got to put out the fire when it’s five hectares, not 50,” he says.

Clint Lambert, Wolf Pack, Francois Lake Fire
Happier times: Clint Lambert, now an elected member of the Board of Directors of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, enjoying the fruits of the land.

The problems of centralized decision-making were Miller’s biggest take-aways. “Control of the fire and fighting of the fire is all within B.C. Wildfire Service’s management, the regional district has no authority or control,” he notes. “The system needs a significant overhaul for quicker and more local responses.”

Glanville is even more pointed. He notes that the Nadina fire originated more than 40 km from François Lake’s western tip, and took more than two weeks to become a major threat. “The Wildfire Service had ample opportunity to keep the fire guarded and controlled way back [as it was drawing closer to François Lake],” says Glanville. “But after it came through the narrow body of land, it spread immensely over the next three days and was well beyond control.”

MLA Rustad has raised the issue several times with other politicians and senior bureaucrats in Victoria. He agrees much needs to change in how the province handles similar situations in the future, particularly tricky issues like liability and personal responsibility. “If a tragedy were to happen and if you were providing fuel and supplies, or you were enabling others to do so, you could be liable,” he notes. “The province decided ‘we don’t want to be liable’ and the regional district was ‘well, we don’t want to be liable’.” This sort of thinking, Rustad believes, motivated the controversial decision to impose a police blockade on the ferry. Clearly something has to change so that people can defend their own property without public liability becoming yet another obstacle to face.

Another curious aspect of the François Lake tale is the lack of wider recognition accorded to the Wolf Pack, the Postmen and all the other unsung volunteers. This C2C Journal exclusive is the first time most Canadians will have heard anything about their exploits or the mind-boggling obstacles they had to overcome, both natural and man-made. It’s an epic tale and, had it unfolded similarly in the United States, the Wolf Pack would very likely be national heroes.

Consider, for example, the now-famous “Cajun Navy.” When tens of thousands of New Orleans residents were stranded without food or water in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a spontaneous collection of boats and volunteers mobilized for rescue duty. And to greater effect than what the professionals could manage. “We had 20,000 federal troops. We had 20 ships and over 225 helicopters,” Lt. Gen. (retired) Russel Honoré, who was in charge of the federal military response, told CBS News on Katrina’s 10th anniversary. “In reality most people are saved by neighbours and volunteers after a disaster than are saved by organized rescue people.” The Cajun Navy has helped out in every subsequent regional disaster and emergency, including hurricanes Florence, Harvey, Maria and this month’s Dorian. And always with ample media coverage. Their motto? “We don’t wait for help. We are the help.”

Hummel remains disarmingly modest about his accomplishments, suggesting that it’s impossible to properly capture what really happened a year ago. “If you want to write a story about it, you should’ve been here,” he tells C2C Journal. “I could never tell you all of what went on, the little details, people having fun and joking, people working their asses off – you would’ve had to see it yourself.”

Despite Hummel’s desire to shrug off recognition, the Wolf Pack’s story deserves much wider acclaim, if only to draw attention to the inspiring virtues they and all the other volunteers exemplified. Not everyone will agree with the risks those Southsiders took one year ago. Or their decision to ignore official orders. Fewer still will have any idea how to safely fight a raging wildfire. But the fact remains that no government can deliver continuous, comprehensive and eternal protection to its citizens. No matter how confident a government’s assurances may be, or how persistently it may dissuade its citizenry from attempting to solve their own problems, or how suffocating its blanket of regulations may become, there will eventually come a day when the power goes out, a hurricane or tornado appears, the police are busy, or a wildfire threatens – and government help is nowhere to be found.

And when that time comes, everyone has a choice to make. Do you meekly accept the situation in accordance with your government-mandated helplessness? Or do you and those you know and trust take matters into your own hands − do you turn and head into the fire

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