The ten year anniversary of the worst fire many people of Crowsnest Pass have ever seen is this week and is generating mixed feelings from residents throughout the community.
The Lost Creek Fire of 2003, the largest fire the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass has ever seen since 1930 terrified the community of Hillcrest when it burned 20,000 hectares of timber on its southern side and forced the evacuation of two communities.
Jerry Newman was the Hillcrest Fire Chief at the time of the fire and recalls the experience as a bitter sweet memory.
“There were about 90 men on scene at the time,” said Newman. “We needed that many people to put out the blaze.”
All four fire departments- Hillcrest, Bellevue, Blairmore and Coleman were on scene, taking turns to fight the fire which raged for the better part of seven weeks.
“We didn’t go back into the forest reserve until it actually encroached into Hillcrest and the structures in Hillcrest,” said Newman.
He explained that the reason for this is because members of the fire departments are trained for structural fires, therefore, until the fire puts structures at risk, natural fires are left to the Sustainable Resources Department.
The SRD put in their best effort to control the massive fire, borrowing fire equipment from communities from all over Alberta.
“When we knew it was going to be a danger to Hillcrest, we got involved,” Newman said.
“We took up tanks and pumps. We got water from whatever water sources we could find. Then we set up sprinkler systems up around the houses.”
Newman said that the fire crews created a water barrier around the homes before the fire approached.
“We covered every house from one end of Hillcrest to the other, covering the southern perimeter,” said Newman. “When the fire did come down, we had a community barrier.”
However, that technique was not enough for a fire of its magnitude.
He explained that with a fire that size, it creates its own wind. When a strong wind is created from the fire, a technique proven effective is back burning.
Back burning is controlled, prescribed burning, often started by fire crew members to aid in putting out a larger fire.
In the case of the Lost Creek Fire, back burning was used to create a small fire a distance ahead from the large fire, to burn and reduce flammable material such as trees and shrubbery before the large fire had the chance.
But being so prepared came with a cost for the firemen- both physically and mentally.
Newman explained that at the worst of the fire he averaged about three hours of sleep a night, for about six weeks.
In addition, the mental strain became overwhelming at times.
“We were fighting for our community. Those were are friends and family down there,” said Newman.
“We fought as hard as we could to keep them safe.”
No one was hurt in the Lost Creek fire, nor did the community of Hillcrest lose any homes.
How the fire originated is still unclear, it is certain that the fire started in the Lost Creek area.
It is believed that a combination of the hot dry weather and the east southerly winds made the likelihood for a fire very high. Something as simple as a cigarette could have been the cause.
It has been ten years since the fire and Newman said that he has mixed feelings about the ten year anniversary.
“The fire was a difficult and stressful time for many of us, but I’m proud of the accomplishments the fire department did,” he said. “I think we made the community proud.”