Retired RCMP Staff Sergeant recounted his memories of the Silver Creek fire as if it had happened yesterday:
My name is Barry Tarr, I am a retired Staff Sergeant with the RCMP and I was involved with police work for some 37 years. In July – August 1998 I was the Staff Sergeant in charge of the Salmon Arm detachment when the major fire of 1998 occurred.
On the day that the lightning struck I was camped out at Sandy Point with my truck and fifth wheel, my wife and family on an overcast day. Then lightning occurred and a bit of smoke came up from the Silver Creek area; it was nothing to be of any great concern and we carried on. But in a matter of a very few minutes – ten or fifteen minutes – I observed a spotter plane and there was a little more smoke coming out of there but I realized that that was B.C. Forestry, Kamloops coming out to look and see what had occurred.
And they did that and things progressed on, there was a little bit more smoke, nothing to be concerned about. By the next day there was more smoke and things got to a point where we needed to do something. Forestry was in there. They were applying their skills and abilities to combat this fire and things kind of got a bit hectic at times.
It didn’t take long until I realized that this was a bit bigger than I thought and was probably going to cause me a bit of a problem. So I met with Dwayne Burdeniuk from the City of Salmon Arm and Ken Tebo who was the Fire Chief of the day and we had several little meetings and kind of looking at things and it didn’t take long before Forestry was involved with us.
We started to hold daily meetings at 7 in the morning and in the evening to discuss what this fire was doing, where it was going. I was so impressed with a chap named Jim Mottishaw of B.C. Forestry who could tell us in the morning what the temperature in the valley floor would be, what the temperature in the hills would be, how big this fire was, how much it was going to grow or diminish today, and what action they were taking to combat that.
I was just impressed with what Forestry said and could do and did do. They didn’t get a handle on it immediately. It was not their fault. They did what they could do but this fire was in a difficult location, it wasn’t safe to put men or machinery into it and so things progressed on.
As things progressed we came to the determination that this fire was a little bigger than we anticipated it would be and we were going to have to evacuate the southeast sector of Salmon Arm which was basically everything on the south side of the Trans Canada Highway through the main part of town from Shuswap on and a little part of the southwest corner as well. So a decision was made for this and we employed the RCMP Auxiliaries, the Citizens on Patrol, and we went about notification of all the citizens that resided in this area, telling them that they would have to evacuate and move out because we were not sure just what this fire was going to do.
It was about that time that I realized that we needed additional policing as well. We had 18 uniform members of the detachment here including myself so I got assistance from our force from Enderby, Armstrong, Vernon, Kelowna, Kamloops, Vancouver. These people came in, they were placed on shifts, with police vehicles with them, and they were assigned certain areas in town and they went about insuring that because everybody was evacuated there was nothing going to be stolen or any damage occur because the people are not home. They did this for us and I was very impressed with that.
Tarr gets emotional when remembering an oversight that happened on his watch.
One thing we did do with the notification we missed a little street of four people and that bothered me because it was my responsibility though nothing detrimental occurred because of that inaction, but we wouldn’t miss it again.
Things continued on. We had great help from the community, from the various organizations, from the citizens in the community who came to assist and provide food, whatever it was – security, at the fire hall where we were holding our debriefing meetings and the like. It certainly helped us.
I was in a bit of a bind because my residence was evacuated, the police office was evacuated, we had to use the cells in Enderby, we had a prisoner to incarcerate, and we just carried on.
In due course Forestry did an excellent job of looking after this and I am sure Jim Mottishaw had a lot to do with this.
I was just very impressed and I learned an awful lot about what fires can do, how they generate their own weather, their own temperature, and scary things that I knew nothing about.
We had a little occurrence at Silver Creek where a small subdivision of seven or eight homes existed. The fire moved in there, it got four of them, and never touched the other four. Difficult to explain. Forestry couldn’t really tell me why. It is just what fire does. It is a scary situation.
We weathered the storm and when it was over I realized how dire this was and the good service we received from the community. I was proud to say the community took ownership of their lives and their property and we had no major problems. It probably was the most traumatic experience of my service in the force. I have investigated many major files, some very brutal. This file – it bothered me and it is now some eighteen years since that fire and I still get very choked up when I talk about that because that fire could have caused us a lot more problems. And we did what we did and I have no regrets.
Deborah Chapman, Salmon Arm Museum, c. 2015