Peter Kilby’s memories of the Fire of ’98 and his part in the evacuation are clear. He and his wife, Barbara, had seen the first plume of smoke rise from the lightning strike on the Fly Hills and had followed the development of the fire as it moved north. When the fire reversed back down the slope and approached the Salmon River Valley, he became concerned about the situation and drove out to Salmon Arm West, just off the Trans Canada Highway on the western edge of town to get a clearer picture of what was actually happening.
Peter joined several other concerned residents who had gathered at the intersection of 30th Ave. SW and the Salmon Valley Rd. It was clear that the fire was out of control and would soon cross the valley and move east up Mt. Ida. The evacuation of the valley from Silver Creek to the TCH was well underway. There was little doubt that our community could be in trouble.
Peter found out that a temporary evacuation centre had been set up at the Salmon Arm Community Centre and, on his way home, he stopped by to see if he could help. There, he spoke to two retired RCMP members (Dave White and Rick Menzies) who were running the evacuation centre as volunteers from the Red Cross. Planning to volunteer for a couple of hours, he offered his services, was accepted and was soon recruited to return the next morning to help process the evacuees.
Early the next day, Saturday, Aug. 08, Rick Menzies phoned Peter. Rick had recalled Peter’s military experience and involvement in Aid to the Civil Power operations and asked him to come to the District Office to help with a review of evacuation planning.
The problem was a lack of a local emergency plan or organization. Although the Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) was established, there was a limited presence in Salmon Arm. Those officially trained were in Kamloops, an hour and a half away. At the time of the fire, the District of Salmon Arm and the CSRD were still in the very early stages of organizing themselves for emergency management. When the seriousness of our situation was recognized, PEP assisted the local authorities to create and staff an Emergency Operations Centre which was located in the downtown fire hall. Geoff Power of the CSRD was appointed Director of the EOC.
When he arrived at the District Council Chamber, Peter met with Mayor Colin Mayes, C.S.R.D. Director Simon DeBoer, and key staff. He asked to look at the District of Salmon Arm’s evacuation plan. Chief Administrative Officer, Doug Lagore, pointed to a blank pad of paper, as if to say there isn’t much of a plan.
Peter’s task was to: create a workable evacuation plan, coordinate those groups tasked by that plan and, if need be, evacuate the community.
The first priority was to create a draft plan for discussion and development. Peter’s approach was to create a very small planning team to prepare a first draft of a plan to be discussed and developed by the larger management group. He was very fortunate to have Sgt. Cliff Hosker (RCMP), Mr. John Oakley (BCJI) and Mrs. Lagore (Dist Staff) as members of this very special team.
The planning team met at 13:00 hrs, Saturday, 08 Aug. At 23:00 hrs, the draft plan was presented for review and development by all elements that made up the emergency management team. The planning group went back to work and presented the final draft to the masses next morning. The EOC staff approved the plan at approximately 11:00 hrs, Sunday, 09 Aug.
The Sunday afternoon briefing by the Forest Service Fire Boss warned of very heavy winds due to hit the fire site some time that evening. Winds of the magnitude forecast would certainly cause the fire to spread to Salmon Arm. One of Peter’s requests of officials was, “You’ve got to make a decision. You have to either alert people that there may be an evacuation, or you have to decide not to warn people now and then, if the fire turns, try to move them without a warning.”
The Fire Marshall located in our EOC contacted Victoria and the authorities decided to order the evacuation of the part of the town most at risk.
Colin Mayes issued the order, telling residents to fill their tanks up with fuel. Gas pumps at the service stations were being shut off. People were warned to turn off their water, gas, and power. They were asked to register at the Community Centre as they left Salmon Arm, so there was a record of where they were headed. All left in an orderly manner.
In Peter’s words, “When the residents were evacuated, our community was over protected.” Police had set up road blocks. If someone wanted to return to his or her home after the evacuation, they were asked to surrender their driver’s license. The simple tracking strategy worked.
The winds that had been forecast didn’t arrive. They roared through the Falkland, Deep Creek/Armstrong area. When the largest evacuation in the province had been carried out, there was no looting, no break ins, and no loss of life. It was a well-run operation.
When asked “how did you let people know the evacuation was lifted?” Peter smiled. He didn’t have to. Residents must have been listening to the news.
Photo credit in order of appearance:
1. James Murray, Salmon Arm Observer, c. 1998
2. Gordon Pelletier, c. 1998