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Transcript: Ken Tebo

Retired Fire Chief speaks aobut the Silver Creek Fire:

My name is Ken Tebo. I was the Fire Chief for the District of Salmon Arm for 25 years and also the Fire Chief in 1998 when we had our major fire event.

It all started very innocently. We all were on the back deck of the fire hall having coffee and all of a sudden out of a cloud came a bolt of lightning, hit the mountain, across the valley from us and we thought we had better keep an eye on it so we watched it for five or ten minutes and it started going up the mountainside very quickly.

Forest Service was notified; they brought in a water bomber to attack it but by then it had taken off and it was racing up the mountain and quite virtually unstoppable. It went to the top of the mountain and then [it] kind of hung around up there for three or four days.

We were keeping an eye on it. We set up small emergency operation centre not too worried about the fire at this point in time until about three or four days later we had a wind event and it blew the fire from the top of the mountain down the mountain, very high winds, impacting the little village of Silver Creek and coming across the valley and threatening the City of Salmon Arm.

We could hear the radio transmissions from the Silver Creek Fire Department so I sent one of my Captains down to Silver Creek to see what was going on. He radioed back we’ve got big trouble. So by then smoke was filling the town, you could barely see where you were going, we had people that were in immediate danger to the south of Salmon Arm.

By this time some of the buildings in Silver Creek had burned. What I decided to do was to try and  get some more resources in town and  I was on the executive of the B.C. Fire Chiefs’ Association at the time so I knew most of the Fire Chiefs in the area and  I called everybody from Kamloops to Revelstoke, Kelowna and  all points in between to see if they would send us some equipment and  manpower, which they did.

Money was never discussed. They said it could be us next time so what do you need?

All these pieces of equipment and manpower started showing up in town. We had no way of really keeping track of them, so we had to devise something.

We had a large map of the city and we used bottle caps with unit numbers on them to move around like chess men on the map so nobody would get lost. We also had to give each unit one of our volunteer firefighters and a portable radio because everybody operated on different frequencies and they didn’t know their way around town so the firefighters acted as the guides.

[We] were fairly successful saving some buildings south of Salmon Arm.

It got very, very hot and smokey and some of our crews had to abandon the hose lines where they were fighting fires to get out of the path of the fire and retreat to safer ground. Fortunately the wind died down later that evening and the fire settled down and we were once again kind of back to normal the next morning if you could call it normal.
By this time we had a lot of people show up for the Emergency Operations Centre.  We had B.C. Hydro, the railroad, the Highways, the Forest Service, of course, Emergency Planning, they all were in town. We even had a full blown weather station brought into town.

So the fire was sitting there for a while and  we went into a briefing one morning and  the meteorologist was crying actually, she was in tears, thinking, telling us that there was going to be a major, major wind event coming up the next day.

After the meeting I talked to Roy Benson who was the Fire Boss for the Forest Service and asked him, “What would you recommend I do from a structural fire fighting standpoint?”

He said, “If I were you, I would get as many fire trucks in town as I could.

So having that put to me, I decided that I should request the Fire Commissioner provide some funding to bring in additional trucks. We also requested that all the trucks that were here earlier and the complement of men to return to Salmon Arm.

At about 9 o’clock I got a word from the Fire Commissioner that I had authorized me to bring some more trucks from the lower mainland. … I phoned a friend of mine, Fire Chief Arkel from the Township of Langley, and asked him if he could get a dozen fire trucks in Salmon Arm.

He said, “I’ll see what I can do, when do you need them?”

I advised him that we needed them at 6 a.m. the next morning.

He said “I’ll see what I can do,” and by 11 o’clock that night he phoned me back and  said that they had twelve fire trucks on the way to Salmon Arm and  they would be here first thing in the morning.

Sure enough they arrived at about 7 o’clock the next day, that was August the 10th, the day we were expecting the big wind storm. The wind storm never happened. Well it did, but the winds stayed aloft and we were spared the big firestorm that we were all extremely worried about.

This time half of the town had been evacuated, we had set up reception centres throughout the area for people who were displaced. A lot of the firefighters had sent their families to friends and relatives out of town and we were expecting the very worst.

We had a couple of incidents that were a little unusual.

A couple of fire trucks had come up from the coast through the toll booth on the Coquihalla highway. They were determined they weren’t going to pay any tolls so they just turned on their lights and sirens and  blew through and  the people in the toll booth were not very happy with them but that kind of all got blown over in the end.

The people in Salmon Arm were a great asset. They pulled together, they fed us for the first couple of days, [and] the Salvation Army was in town and fed the firefighters. People were helping people evacuate. We had animals that had to be moved. It was a major, major undertaking and as a result of the fire, the cooperation between the Forest Service and the structural firefighting community proved to be very good and successful and turned out as a template for pretty much every wildfire since then including the major fire in Kelowna in 2003. So all in all it was quite an ordeal for people in Salmon Arm. Fortunately we were spared the major devastation that could have occurred.

Video credit:
Ryon Ready and Deborah Chapman
Salmon Arm Museum and Heritage Association, c. 2015