The more bodies the better.
That’s the approach rancher Shauna Jacobsen’s family, the Tyee Lake Volunteer Fire Department and the McLeese Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. used to fight the Forest Lake wildfire half an hour north of Williams Lake.
Speaking from a travel trailer just north of McLeese Lake Friday, Shauna said she and her husband Jace and their children evacuated Saturday, July 15 but did not go any further north so they could be close enough to their cattle ranch at the north end of Tyee Lake.
Shauna said she was up in the field raking hay on the afternoon of Friday, July 7 when she saw numerous lightning strikes and subsequent smoke.
“I ran home to get my husband because he is good with direction,” she said. “When he came out he said, ‘wow, that’s quite close to us, that looks like near Forest Lake.”
From then on it was a whirlwind.
The Jacobsens grabbed everything they could.
Fortunately, they were already geared up and ready to go if necessary to fight a fire because they had been nervous about dry conditions at the ranch.
Meanwhile, Tyee Lake Volunteer Fire Chief Rick Jelley said he happened to be driving by when the Wildwood and Williams Lake Airport fires erupted Friday afternoon.
He’d stopped and assisted the Wildwood Volunteer Fire Dept. for a few hours but when he heard over the radio through the dispatch there was a fire on the Lynes Creek Road which is the access road to Tyee Lake his focus switched to the home front.
“I got some of our members to do some patrols because I knew what was happening with all the other fires burning locally and by about 8 o’clock they found the fire. It was probably about 100 feet square at the point.”
He called in the fire department and Jacobsen Ranch showed up with a logging forwarder that had a 3,000 gallon water tank, a freight-liner flatbed, three inch pumps and hoses and a bunch of family members.
“They had it extinguished by about 11 p.m.” Jelley said.
Jelley said there are 15 members in their six-year-old fire dept. and they have been trained only to fight bush fires.
They do not do structure protection.
The next day, the fire department continued with four different patrol units going into areas near Forest Lake, Blue Lake and toward Big Lake.
“On a patrol they found a ground fire on the transmission line near Forest Lake so then we concentrated our efforts on that and the ranch continued to pitch in,” Jelley said, noting the McLeese Lake Fire Dept. came in after a few days to help.
They continued fighting the transmission line fire until Friday, with help from someone from the ministry of forests.
On Saturday morning, July 15, in anticipation of the big wind forecast, Jelley told his crew to regroup and organize all the gear to make sure they were prepared.
They also stood down to go home and get their things in order in case something big happened.
“I was at home working in my garage getting some stuff ready and looked out and saw the smoke out the back because it blew up at Forest Lake again,” Jelley said. ” All our efforts were kind of insignificant.”
When Jelley got through to the Ministry of Forests they instructed him to get everyone out of there.
“We have an old fire truck with a really loud siren on it so I went up and turned it on to alert the residents. We have one lady – Maureen Straza – who does communicating for our community so she phoned around to make sure everyone knew we were being evacuated.”
Initially Jelley drove down Lynes Creek Road to see if Highway 97 was clear but he could see the fire raging through there.
“When I got back a helicopter landed and we were instructed to do an emergency evacuation through Jacobsen Ranch. We ended up with 15 vehicles and about 30 people taking that way out through the ranch. It took us about an hour to land in McLeese Lake at the Oasis Motel.”
From there some residents decided whether they wanted to go to Prince George or not, while others stayed behind in RVs.
“I didn’t have an RV but I grabbed sleeping bags,” he chuckled. “I ended up sleeping in a tent that night.”
The next day, they gathered all their gear and went back to the fire and kept fighting until they were told to leave.
There is one person living permanently at Forest Lake – Mark Snow – and another cabin owned by someone from Vancouver.
While they managed to save the home and cabin, Shauna said an historical barn on the cabin property was lost in the blaze.
“Where that beautiful barn was we had a staging area to gather water from the lake,” she said. “We had to pack the water quite a ways to one fire we were fighting to put out.”
Shauna said because of the efforts of the ranch crew and the two fire departments they were instrumental in stopping the fire from spreading to homes of friends and family and down the power line.
“Tony McEwen and and Joe Oethiemer were both instrumental with their tickets, forest firefighting experience and hand falling.,” she added. “ They were the ones that kept us safe and showed us what we needed to do so we could work smarter. We started every morning at 6 a.m. and usually did not get home until 8 p.m.”
Thursday, July 20 was their last day on the fire and the Ministry of Forests came in and told them they couldn’t be there anymore.
“We are thankful that they are there,” Jace said of the ministry’s presence. “We know they will do a good job. We were just staying there until they got there.”
Now the Jacobsens say their main concern is how to get up the hill to check on the cattle.
“We have 10,000 hectares of bush land so we are working on getting a permit so we can get up there. The cattle are our whole livelihood. We shut everything down – all the haying, all the cow checks, everything to go fight that fire.”
Having helicopters assisting has been great too because the pilots can see things from the air, for example, when one noticed cattle in danger of a fire, they messaged Shauna who alerted the rancher.
“I was so thankful for that,” she said.
Jace said he feels the work done by the rancher crew, and the McLeese Lake and Tyee Lake volunteer fire departments freed up resources for the forest crews working beside them.
“We know we made a difference for them,” he said.
He also wanted to praise the leadership of Marc Gosselin, the fire chief ot he McLeese Lake Fire Dept.
“Marc had to makes some really tough calls. He and his crew are amazing. The ranch crew and the Tyee Lake fire department really appreciated their help.”
Jace also acknowledged the efforts of members of the nearby Deep Creek community.
“A band member from Deep Creek showed up on the second day of the fire and let us know they were working on the south side of the fire. We never saw each other again, but he said he was thankful to know we were holding the line on the backside.”