PENTICTON - A Kaleden couple whose residence was right next door to a dry, abandoned orchard believed to be the starting point of last Tuesday’s wildfire in Kaleden consider themselves fortunate as they continue to come to grips with the chaotic events of the incident.
Larry and Dillys Richardson’s house was squarely in the line of fire last Tuesday afternoon, July 4, but amazingly, the house was spared through the efforts of fire crews, weather, luck and their own initiatives.
Dillys was at home with the doors and windows closed, teaching piano theory when her student’s mother came into the house to report a fire.
Dillys believes it was around 3:40 p.m.
“When I looked out, all I could see was fire and smoke,” she said.
The student and her mother left quickly, while Dillys called 911 and moved her car out of the driveway as flames approached the fence on the south edge of the property.
"It was fight or flight. I ran and turned the irrigation on, then went back to the front yard and saw fire in the garden, on the opposite side of the house,” she said.
By this time, embers and sparks were flying everywhere, igniting patches of ground wherever it would burn.
She put out the fire, with flames already several feet high. She attempted to wet down the area, as it was right beside one of several sheds on the property, when members of the Kaleden Fire Department arrived and began hosing down other hot spots.
She managed to stay long enough to see the family’s Laser sailboat and canoe catch fire, erupting in a fury of billowing, black smoke.
“I was told to leave at that point,” she said, watching the fire spreading rapidly into a vineyard across the street as she drove away.
“I don’t really know how I was functioning. I moved one of our cars, to try to keep it from burning. I wasn’t even thinking, I was just doing,” she said attributing her actions to adrenaline.
“I didn’t even bother going in the house, I just grabbed my purse and the safe and thought, ‘if it goes, it goes, it doesn’t matter, everybody’s safe,'" she said.
"I was relieved, very much relieved to find it was safe. I guess the biggest reason being we both run a business out of our home, all our papers, everything on the computer… that’s what I was really more worried about,” she said.
“I didn’t know whether the house was burning or not, but it didn’t look good. The whole property was surrounded,” she said, adding turning on the sprinklers to shrubbery surrounding the perimeter of the property kept it from spreading.
Larry, who is a logging contractor, was an hour and a half away, when he first heard of the fire.
He managed to get back to Kaleden by 5:30 and was able to make it to his house where, because of his forestry expertise, he stayed, working through the night to protect his house and assist firefighters by working hose lines and cutting down burning trees in the neighbourhood.
“You have tourist traffic on the road - I was pretty short with some of the drivers,” he said of his return to Kaleden, adding he had been advised to take Old Kaleden Road to get back to his house.
The fire was raging through the ravine, torching pine trees and a large pile of firewood stacked there when he arrived.
“I got back around 5:30. Fire was burning all around me,” he said.
“I lost a couple of tree planting units, but the excavator never burned. When I got home, I moved it,” he said.
Fortunately, a row of trees nearest the house above the gulley didn’t ignite but were only flashed by the fire.
He immediately went to work moving the equipment, some of which was close to catching fire.
“I couldn’t believe the heat on it. It was ready to ignite. I burned my hand trying to get in the excavator,” he said.
The cab of his loader had partially melted from the heat.
He then assisted firefighters with hose lines to extinguish fires in the gulley, helped fire crews in cutting down a burning tree and spent the rest of the night working to keep his house safe.
Dillys waited for three hours at the Community Hall and at a friend’s before receiving word her house was safe. She didn’t get back into the house until much later that night, but Larry spent the night on the property.
“The metal roof and the hardiboard saved the house,” Larry said, “in addition to the fact the wind was gusting, which caused the fire to skirt around us.”
Unfortunately, the Richardson’s next door neighbour to the north weren’t so lucky.
The fire stayed in the gulley, but circled Richardson’s house, making its way to the north side of the property where it ignited two sheds.
Dillys says even while she was still on scene, hosing down her garden, the fire was spreading into the neighbour’s house.
“The fire department was on its way with the hose, but the fire was moving too fast,” she said.
The Richardsons lost two sheds between their house and the neighbours, but a shop in the same location survived.
The neighbour's house was also lost.
“Lots of things probably saved us, but the initial work by the fire crews was probably the biggest thing,” Larry said, adding the large number of firefighters from Kaleden, Okanagan Falls, Penticton, and B.C. Wildfire Service made it possible for crews to chase down spot fires.
He also noted that later in the evening, the gusty winds subsided.
“It died right down after 7, but their initial hammer on it right away, bringing several crews in, made a big difference,” Larry said.
He said the fire’s spread from around 300 metres south of Richardson’s property to their house and beyond took around 10 minutes, fueled by a long dead and untended orchard, lined with dead cottonwood trees. When it hit the gulley on the south side of their property, gusty winds took over, resulting in erratic fire behaviour.
“I didn’t ever really think there would ever be something that volatile that would start there, and threaten the community. It’s some distance away, and I felt I had a pretty good firebreak here,” Larry said, adding the gulley has always been a concern for him. He says about a decade ago he began to make a conscious effort to fireproof his property, cleaning years of debris out of the ravine, putting a metal roof on the house and recladding the house with non-combustible siding.
“I never throw cuttings into it, I take everything to the landfill. I used to do it, but when I started to see our weather change, I started changing my attitude about it,” he said.
“I strongly advise people not to discard yard waste into these draws and gullies, of which Kaleden has many. It’s just a huge fuel load,” he said, adding it may be onerous to remove now, but doing so could save your property in the event of a flash fire.
“I keep going back to how many people were here, working the fire. I think that’s what saved it. I know (Kaleden Fire Chief) Dennis (Gaudry) says he feels there were six homes saved, honestly, I think there was eight to 10,” Larry said.
The Richardsons, like other Kaleden residents affected by the fire, are still adding up the damages. That may take several days, as the damage isn’t necessarily obvious.
Their house was saved, but two sheds full of equipment and seasonal items burned completely.
A trampoline in the backyard and the back deck is pockmarked with holes from hot embers and a timber retaining wall is partially burned. The garden also took a beating, but most of the vegetation appears to have survived.
Dillys said in the thick of the urgency and panic in dealing with those first chaotic moments last Tuesday, she remembers feeling a sense of relief in seeing the Kaleden fire trucks arrive.
“It’s kind of reassuring, seeing the fire trucks pull up with people you know,” Dillys said.
“They’re passionate,” Larry said, adding fire personnel were continuing their patrols and finding hot spot with unceasing diligence.
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