FIRESTORM 2017: Rankins and fire department mobilize

The Morgan Creek Ranch north of Williams Lake was threatened by the Hawkes Creek fire July 7 and 8, but ultimately it was saved by the efforts of the Rankin family and the McLeese Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. Photo submitted
The Morgan Creek Ranch north of Williams Lake was threatened by the Hawkes Creek fire July 7 and 8, but ultimately it was saved by the efforts of the Rankin family and the McLeese Lake Volunteer Fire Dept. Photo submitted

With help from the McLeese Lake Volunteer Fire Department, a local ranching family saved their ranch and a BC Hydro substation from encroaching wildfires this summer.

“No fencing was lost, no crops were damaged and no cows were harmed,” Heather Rankin said from Morgan Creek Ranch. “That’s the miracle of the story. Our cows are up feeding today on the field that could have burned.”

Heather’s husband, Allan Rankin, along with brothers Dave and Robin, own the ranch which is located 30 kilometres north of Williams Lake on the east side of the Fraser River and was started by their parents in 1936.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 7, when multiple lightning strikes hit the Cariboo Chilcotin, Heather and Allan had just returned home from shopping in Williams Lake.

“My daughter Morgan sent me a text message,” Heather recalled. “She was driving through Wildwood and took pictures of the Airport and Wildwood fires. When she got home she looked across the highway toward the BC Hydro substation and saw two lightning strikes.”

When Heather and Allan looked outside they saw two huge plumes of smoke and flames, but Heather said at that point Allan did not think the fire would cross Hawkes Creek and come to their ranch.

“That night from the old ranch house where Morgan and her husband live, we watched three or four plumes of smoke. We could see CN Rail was out there watching the railway tracks too,” Heather said.

Their son Ian and his family were staying at the ranch because they’d just moved out of their home on Fox Mountain which they’d sold and were waiting to get into their new place at Rose Lake, which was evacuated earlier that day.

By early Saturday morning things had worsened.

A family crew began working to build a fire guard about 6:30 a.m. because if the fire did cross the creek they wanted to make sure it didn’t have any fuel.

Following a suggestion to do two widths of the cat blade they set to work. Using a big water tanker truck they also attacked the fire that way.

“We worked all day,” Heather recalled.

“My son and his wife and our nephew and his wife took turns through the night going down the steep embankment with watering cans and putting out spot fires as they saw them flare up.”

Meanwhile, the McLeese Lake Volunteer Fire Department was in the area monitoring fires Saturday morning and one of the members spotted fires in the gully by the Rankins’ field, said McLeese Lake first responder Torie Lee.

“We then called a team in to protect the fields so the fire wouldn’t spread to the tree line or the Rankins’ house or cross the highway,” Lee said.

Ten members of the department arrived, along with a fire truck and a local contractor who donated a tanker truck.

“We worked all day,” Lee said. “We were able to hold it to the edge of the hay field which allowed the Rankins to protect the substation. The Rankins were the real heroes.”

For the next week the Rankins monitored all the hot spots and although the fires did move to within half a mile of the substation, there was never any support from the BC Wildfire Service.

“There were planes flying over and I’d think ‘oh good they are going to help’ but they never dropped any water and we found out later they couldn’t,” Heather said. “They did not have the resources. They were fighting the airport fire, they were fighting the fires out of Ashcroft. As you know everywhere they were fighting fires. We felt neglected and scared.”

Talking with other ranchers, Heather said she feels that ranchers do have experience that should be used when there are wildfires.

Heather said her family emerged from the experience with a positive attitude because it brought them together.

“Besides the fact there were scary days, I think the scariest day was when we watched as the fires close to Williams Lake burned. I think we were pretty lucky.”

Allan said he did not agree with the ways the wildfires were handled.

“The ones that were successful were the ones that lived around the area that really put up the fight,” he added.

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