Former Woodstock publisher shares her story of what life is like living next to a wildfire

By Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel-Review

A out-of-control wildfire burns near Princeton, B.C. (Courtesy of Bob Marsh/Similkameen Spotlight)

A out-of-control wildfire burns near Princeton, B.C. (Courtesy of Bob Marsh/Similkameen Spotlight)

There is not a minute of the day when residents of the small town of Princeton, B.C., do not hear the drone of a helicopter swooping overhead.

“I sit on my front porch and watch them go back and forth,” said Andrea DeMeer, the editor and publisher of the Similkameen Spotlight, the town’s weekly newspaper. “Helicopters fly over lakes and scoop up water and fly over the fire and dump it.”

With the looming threat of the 3,000-hectare wildfire — equivalent to a little more than half the size of Woodstock – the atmosphere in the town is not only smoky but tense.

With the fires prompting a state of emergency, local residents are on edge, concerned about their homes — some of which may be uninsured — their animals and the potential evacuation orders that can arrive very suddenly.

One convoy on Missezula Lake escorted residents from their homes at 3 a.m. because it was the safest time to travel the highway

“Obviously everyone here is very worried,” DeMeer said.

For those residents of the 350 homes already evacuated, there is concern over whether their homes are still standing. To date, three homes have been lost, as well as barns and outbuildings.

“What’s stressing out the people that are evacuated is that they don’t have that much information,” DeMeer said.

Information about their properties is often found through unofficial sources.

An animal evacuation centre has been set up at the town’s fairgrounds for those who need to leave their livestock or horses, or worry that they will in the near future.

First identified last Friday, the small town of 2,800 and the surrounding area soon learned they may be far too close to a very serious wildfire, one of 183 burning across the province.

While wildfires are very common in the B.C. interior, the Princeton fire quickly became out of control, forcing the evacuation of a children’s camp along Highway 5A last Friday.

“The fire grew very, very rapidly,” DeMeer said. “By Saturday morning, the fire had travelled eight kilometres and encompassed 200 hectares.”

DeMeer, who spoke from her Princeton office, is the former publisher of the Woodstock Sentinel-Review. She moved to British Columbia in 2014.

As the only local media covering the fire, DeMeer admitted she "didn’t get a whole lot of sleep” over the weekend while trying to keep up with the fire and evacuation orders.

“All that information is just so important to people,” she said. “You have to get that information online as quickly as you can. It’s a big responsibility.”

The contingent fighting the fire includes 155 firefighters, nine helicopters, six skimmers and 28 other industry workers.

An incident team from Wildfire BC Service is co-ordinating suppression efforts at the scene.

While the fire is now 10 per cent contained, hot weather has hampered containment efforts and gusty winds predicted for the weekend will likely enlarge the acreage being consumed. Suppression efforts on the ground currently include controlling the perimeter, creating guards with heavy equipment, digging trenches and removing fuel.

With their priority to protect the residents, firefighters are using industrial sprinklers to keep flames away from homes.

DeMeer said she has been both awestruck by the wildfire but also by the response efforts by BC Wildfire Service.

“It’s so co-ordinated,” she said. “They are all so calm about it because it’s what they do all the time. The response if very reassuring … they really know what they are doing.”

The community has also responded, with everyone pitching in to help each other.

“It may be tense but there is also so much kindness,” she said.

The cause of fire is considered human, but no other details have been released.