During the summer’s wildfires as many as 80 people were eating and sleeping at one time in the Central Cariboo Search and Rescue (CCSAR) hall in Williams Lake.
A function of the Cariboo Regional District, CCSAR was tasked with assisting with evacuations.
The unit was also asked to have its auto extrication team on standby at all times.
“We had SAR members from 100 Mile House, Quesnel, Prince George, Nechako and Bulkley Valley here,” Chief Rick White said during an interview with members last week. “They dropped their lives to come here and help us.”
Many people from out of town volunteered all weekend and then returned home to work their jobs, member Ken Unruh added.
At one point there were 50 cots brought in from the Red Cross set up all over the place and there were other people sleeping in campers parked on both sides of the road, White said.
When he put out a call on Facebook that they needed extra fridges people loaned them some.
The Williams Lake Log Haulers Association purchased a $4,000- air conditioner unit for the hall and Real Canadian Wholesale Club donated flats of water.
After the first evacuation order and alerts came down on July 7 because of the Gustafsen Lake fire, CCSAR was asked to set up cots at the Emergency Services Centre at Lake City Secondary’s Williams Lake Campus.
“We were also busy stuffing envelopes for the evacuation packages,” said CCSAR member Dawn Unruh.
In the midst of doing those tasks, White received a call at about 9 p.m. that evening asking CCSAR to be on standby for a possible rescue of people trapped at Yunesit’in by the Hanceville-Riske Creek fire.
“We were putting together a plan to rescue them, but I think they ended up sending in a chopper to pick them up,” White said.
Deputy Chief Don Trim said they also got an auto-ex call to a motor vehicle incident at the same time and the auto ex team left for an hour to attend.
By 9:40 p.m. a call came from the RCMP requesting help evacuating Sugar Cane because the wildfires were rapidly threatening that community.
“The fire was on the backside of the hill when we had a quick meeting with the RCMP to figure out a very hasty game plan, and by 10:15 p.m. when we were driving out there embers were falling across our headlights,” said assistant chief Kyle Cotterell.
White said eventually he decided to pull his crew out because it was getting too dangerous.
They returned to the hall and then were called out at around 1:15 a.m. Saturday to help evacuate 150 Mile House.
“We went out in three vehicles and proceeded to evacuate Borland Valley,” Trim said, noting it was their role to explain the evacuation orders to residents, “We always worked under the direction of the RCMP.”
As search and rescue volunteers, they are not trained as firefighters, so it was intense to be in close proximity of the fires, White said.
“Sugar Cane was my most intense fire scene,” he explained. “The noise of the fire roaring down the hill sounded like a freight train.”
Trim said when they drove out to 150 Mile House to evacuate the residents there it was a “real fire storm.”
“Rick and I were in one of the trucks and we thought all of Sugar Cane was on fire as we drove by.”
There was a log house close to the highway at Sugar Cane with its porch on fire and he assumed it was going to burn down, Ken Unruh recalled.
“When we came back in the daylight it was still standing,” he said, shaking his head. “Those firefighters saved it, it was incredible.”
Driving out to 150 Mile in the CCSAR vehicles they were almost in “military” precision, Cotterell added.
“We had the windows rolled up, the air conditioning on, and each vehicle was five seconds apart,” he explained.
After using maps and sheets of paper to carry out the first evacuations, CCSAR began using an iPad system they learned about from Prince George Search and Rescue called GSI.
“We could zoom into areas and look at the mapping of exactly where a house was,” Dawn explained, noting even though it wasn’t in their budget, the CRD purchased eight iPads for CCSAR.
The members said their experiences throughout the wildfires were all positive.
“We’ve met a lot of fantastic people,” Trim said. “People thanked us and you know, that really helped lift our spirits when we were getting tired.”
No one ever got angry when the SAR members showed up with evacuation orders, even if it was the middle night, he added.
“Of course some people did not want to go, and that was their right, but they understood why we were there.”
Trim and White praised the efforts of the Unruhs saying they just recently joined CCSAR and became leaders during the wildfires.
In turn the Unruhs, along with Trim, White and Cotterell said they were grateful to Sam Bergman from South Cariboo Search and Rescue who stepped in to be the search manager and quickly learned the GSI system so they could use it.
“I don’t think Sam was cranky once,” Dawn said smiling.