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‘I had to do it’: A Kootenay couple’s fight to save their property from wildfires

The Michaud Creek fire devastated the area surrounding the Kutasewhich family’s Arrow Lakes property
The Michaud Creek wildfire as it reaches the boundary of the Kutasewich property. Submitted photo

For most people, the drama of summer’s wildfires has begun to fade. But for Max and Joanna Kutasewich, the summer of 2021 and the Michaud Creek wildfire is something they will never forget.

The couple owns a 40-acre recreational property — a small peninsula on the west shore of Arrow Lake at Bowman Creek, across from Sunshine Bay. It’s accessible only by boat, a journey that takes about 45 minutes from Syringa Creek Provincial Park.

On July 9, the Kutasewichs received a call from a friend telling them that smoke from the Bowman Creek wildfire could be seen above their property.

The couple was at their Castlegar home at the time and they began to gather sprinklers, hoses and other supplies before heading to their property to try to protect it from the fire.

The BC Wildfire Service was able to attack the Bowman Creek fire and extinguish it within a few days and the danger passed.

The Kutasewichs returned home. But the couple wasn’t able to celebrate the victory, as a new threat loomed.

On July 10, lightning sparked a new fire at Michaud Creek about eight kilometres north of their property.

The couple thought there would be lots of time before the wildfire could spread that far. Nevertheless, they continued gathering more fire suppressant supplies and making preparations to protect their property.

But the conditions at Michaud Creek quickly deteriorated. Between the extremely dry forest and unfavourable weather conditions, the wildfire had grown to 450 hectares on July 16 when Max once again arrived at the property.

By the next afternoon, the fire had surged to 2,500 hectares.

Max Kutasewich watching the Michaud Creek wildfire approach his property.Submitted photo
Max Kutasewich watching the Michaud Creek wildfire approach his property. Submitted photo

“I’m freaking out at this point,” said Max.

That same day, an evacuation order was put into place.

But with a travel trailer, out buildings, a cabin under construction and the property itself — investments totalling more than $500,000 — at risk they decided to ignore the order and stay.

“I had to save my property,” said Max, who has been developing the spot for 15 years. “I was going to do whatever I had to do.”

Max acknowledges that at times he was concerned for his own safety and questioned what he was doing.

“I was terrified,” he said. “But, it was worth it — I had to do it.

“It wasn’t just fear of the fire. It was fear that I could lose everything I had worked so hard for.”

Friends came to assist Max, and together they set up pumps, hoses and sprinklers leading from the waters edge. Working day in and day out, they would sleep on their boats for safety.

“But at this point, we could see the fire,” said Max. “We had a good visual of what was happening.”

The fire halted its progression towards their property at about three kilometres away for several days, giving valuable time to further fortify the boundaries.

More friends, and even strangers, began to take turns coming and staying at the property to assist the efforts and deliver more supplies.

The B.C. Wildfire Service flew in and offered advice on how to prepare for the coming fire. But all the while, authorities continued to urge everyone to evacuate.

“Of course, we didn’t listen,” said Max.

The gasoline-powered pumps they were using only had about a three-hour run time before the tanks had to be replenished, resulting in a never-ending cycle to maintain water flow. The Wildfire Service was eventually able to assist and supplied a pump that could run for 10 hours.

“That made a world of difference,” said Max.

They also began to empty everything out of the buildings and trailer and move it all towards the beach.

About a week into the ordeal, a new set of friends with some firefighting experience arrived.

“Initially our goal was to save the cabin,” explained Joanna. “But when they arrived, they said we could go one step further and set up a sprinkler line to save the trailer and the property.”

Efforts then went into expanding the line of sprinklers to encompass more of the property.

Meanwhile, Joanna was back in town fearful of not just losing her property, but her husband.

She says it was torture, not knowing what was going on.

As the sun set on July 22, things went from bad to worse.

“Around 10 p.m. the wind really started picking up and blowing the fire towards our property,” said Max.

He went down to the beach to check the pumps and discovered the wind and waves had knocked them all over the shoreline. Max woke up his friends and they got the pumps ready to run only to discover that sand had plugged all of the sprinklers they had worked so hard to set up.

Volunteers helping to protect the Kutasewich property. Submitted photo
Volunteers helping to protect the Kutasewich property. Submitted photo

The crew worked as long as they could, but stopped around 3:30 a.m., absolutely exhausted.

“The flashlights were all dead at that point,” said Max.

“I went to the boat thinking, ‘That’s it — all that work we did — it’s done.’”

But when dawn arrived, they discovered they had been lucky and the fire had not quite reached the property.

The daylight gave the group another opportunity to get all the sprinklers up and running.

The fire reached their boundary on July 23 and burned everything surrounding them.

“It’s now just a black strip,” says Max.

But the pumps kept pumping and the sprinkler lines worked — the fire halted its progression just 1.5 metres away from the trailer.

Max says he’s confident that without their efforts everything would have burned.

“We would have lost it for sure. Everything for about 30 kilometres along the lake is burned — right down to the driftwood.”

The battle wasn’t over though. A crew of about a dozen friends continued to work with hoses to keep the fire at bay and put out hot spots.

“Trees were falling every few minutes. I almost got hit by a tree and so did a friend,” said Max.

“You are taking some pretty big chances going in there.”

Joanna returned to the property on July 24, the morning after the fire reached them.

“I was speechless to see the devastation,” said Joanna. “It was a green, lush forest and then to show up and see everything gone.”

The Kutasewich’s trailer can be seen through the trees in the aftermath of the fire. Submitted photo
The Kutasewich’s trailer can be seen through the trees in the aftermath of the fire. Submitted photo

The Kutasewichs continued to work for the next two weeks maintaining the sprinklers and putting out hot spots.

Once the Michaud Creek fire had done its worst to the area and burned more than 14,000 hectares, the couple continued to have concerns as the Octopus Creek fire was still raging across the lake and ash and burning needles continued to rain down on the property.

It wasn’t until Aug. 30 that Max felt comfortable leaving the property.

In the end, the Kutasewich’s still-green peninsula stands out in stark contrast to its blackened surroundings.

“It was traumatizing — and we saved everything,” said Max. “I can’t imagine if we lost everything, what that would do to somebody.”

Over and over throughout the ordeal, people continued to offer the family a helping hand, dropping off everything from food to gas and giving countless hours of labour.

The couple is extremely grateful and knows they have those people to thank for the salvation of their property.

“It was very moving,” said Joanna. “In spite of the pandemic and people going through whatever they are in their own lives, there is still goodness in people.”

It has taken a few months for the couple to be ready to share their story with the public and they say the effects of the inferno — both good and bad — will stay with them forever.

READ MORE: ‘We managed to survive’: Abandoned Second World War training airfields fading away

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An aerial view of the Kutasewich property.
This BC Wildfire Service map of the Michaud Creek wildfire boundary shows the tiny peninsula of the Kutasewich’s property remaining outside the fire’s boundaries. Image: BC Wildfire
Joanna and Max Kutasewich at their property before the fire. Submitted photo

Betsy Kline

About the Author: Betsy Kline

After spending several years as a freelance writer for the Castlegar News, Betsy joined the editorial staff as a reporter in March of 2015. In 2020, she moved into the editor's position.
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