Firefighter Wells shares experience in Williams Lake

Firefighter Wells shares experience in Williams Lake

“When we first got there, the people were nervous. You could see it,” said Wells.

Four short hours on July 11 put firefighter Richard Wells on a six-day deployment to Williams Lake to protect the city.

“There was no real decision. The (fire) chief sent out an email to ask who would be able to go and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Wells.

At about 1 p.m. on that Tuesday, Hope Fire Department fire chief Tom DeSorcy asked who could go help the firefighting efforts in Williams Lake, and Wells and his firefighting colleague Ray Hartt signed up. The city needed firefighters trained in structural fires.

In the next four hours, Wells received approval from his employer, packed his things and left. Wells said his wife and mother expressed nervousness at Wells’ decision.

“Half the time, they don’t worry when it’s in town, but when we go to a forest like this, when it’s this big, they get a little nervous,” said Wells.

Wells described the seven-hour drive to Williams Lake as one with a changing landscape.

“It was surreal. We’re driving up and all of a sudden there’s no traffic once we got past Spences Bridge,” said Wells. “Once we got to Ashcroft, you could see the devastation.”

Wells said fires there have burned signs on the mountain, some parts of the town was burned. Further north, Wells said Cache Creek felt like a ghost town and had only one gas station open for emergency crews. At 100 Mile House, the scene looked similar — one gas station and a lot of emergency crews.

“It was getting a little darker, so we started seeing a little glowing embers in the mountains,” said Wells. “It got a little more overwhelming because you’re looking on the sides and you see and like, ‘OK this is a bit bigger than we thought because it spread that far that fast.’ “

Around midnight, Wells arrived in Williams Lake, and he checked in with the base camp there. When Hope Fire Department arrived, they joined about 15 other units stationed there. They assigned them a cot at the city’s curling rink.

“I was nervous at first, especially once you see the fire’s burned area,” said Wells. “But when we got to the city, I noticed that the fire was a distance away, so it was a little more calming.”

His duties the next day involved getting to know the city, and he drove around to familiarize himself with the town. By the end of that day, a total of 21 fire departments arrived in the city. That went up to almost 40 through Wells’ six-day service.

“When we first got there, the people were nervous. You could see it,” said Wells. “We’re driving around, and people were starting to wave, and starting to smile. They were appreciative.

“It gave the townspeople ease knowing that we were there… they know they have helped. Everyone else is tired — they’ve been at it for a week and a half.”

On Thursday, Hope Fire Department joined fire departments from Surrey, Vancouver, Sechelt and Coombes to form Task Force One. The base camp had assigned them to defend a mill on the northernmost part of Williams Lake where the White Lake fire was coming from. That fire was 18 kilometres away when they arrived. Defending the mill proved important because 365 people depend on that for their livelihoods.

Stable fire conditions meant that the different fire departments in the task force were training with each other on Friday. Saturday was the turning point for the fire — the winds picked up and the fire spread, which also led to the evacuation of the city. It became like 100 Mile and Cache Creek — “ghost town,” said Wells.

“We’re sitting there doing an information video at the base camp and we turned around and look at all the mountains, all three fire flared up,” said Wells. “Basically we’re working 10 hour days, but that day we had to do thirteen-and-a-half.”

Wells’ role involved staying at the mill and ensuring no fires threatened it. Luckily for him, fires did not reach that mill.

Monday came and it was time for Wells to return to Hope. His firefighting colleague, Dave Hick, headed north at 5 a.m. to replace Wells. Leaving his colleague Hartt was not easy, said Wells.

“You’re leaving a guy behind that you just worked with for all week and you want him to be safe,” said Wells. “I was a little nervous.”

Since returning, Wells has texted his “brother-in-arms” to check out how he is doing. Wells said that when he left, the fire was six km from the town, and Wells said that his colleagues are facing a fire that is four km from the mill.

This marks the first provincial firefighting effort which Wells has participated in.

“To me, it was satisfaction because I got to help somebody. My training got to be used,” said Wells.

Wells arrived in home on July 17 afternoon. He took a shower and napped before returning to work in the evening. On the July 19 evening, he contributed in putting out the Jason Road workshop fire.

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