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Saving Bonaparte: The men who stayed behind to battle the Elephant Hill wildfire

Neighbours and friends banded together to help fight a fire that threatened properties on the Bonaparte Reserve on July 7, 2017.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Brad Pierro
August 23, 2017 - 1:00 PM

KAMLOOPS - Facing the destruction of their homes on the Bonaparte Reserve near Cache Creek, a group of family members and neighbours worked together to battle the Elephant Hill wildfire and saved several properties from decimation.

Among that team of brave men was New Gold mine maintenance worker and Bonaparte Indian Band counselor Brad Pierro. Around noon on July 7, 2017, Pierro was preparing for a weekend camping trip with his wife and their four month old son when he was getting gas and supplies in Ashcroft.

As he arrived at the gas station with his mother, Pierro noticed a fire had sparked up by the train tracks about a kilometre and a half from Cornwall Road. In the time it took to fill his tank, the blaze had made its way across the highway and onto the Ashcroft Reserve. After getting his mom back in the truck he started driving back to Highway 1 in order to head home, but the fire quickly made its way over that road as well and stopped them off from getting to Cache Creek.

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Brad Pierro

"I was planning on just driving through but the flames were going from one side of the highway and touching the other side of the highway," he says. "My uncle advised me not to because I have a brand new truck and he said I'd scorch it."

Pierro and company made their way to the Three Sister Ranch and started driving the back roads to Bonaparte Reserve.

"When I got back into cell service my wife had been calling already and she got a hold of me," he says. "She said the fire was getting close to home which is pretty unbelievable because from the Ashcroft Reserve to ours is about 25 kilometres."

By the time Pierro got home the fire was only about three kilometres away and the RCMP were already evacuating people.

"It was just a big daze by then I was just doing circles in our living room wondering what to pack," he says. "After my kid was loaded up with all his belongings, I ended up walking out with my rifle and my wall mount." Pierro is referring to his prized deer antlers.

He sent his wife, his child, and mother to safety so he could stay behind and help fight the fire that was creeping toward their homes.

"There were about 12 of us that stayed behind," he says. "We did what we could with what we had. We had our fire hydrants, there were two to hook up to on this end. We had a handful of inch and a half hoses and nozzles, and we had to scramble for fittings."

"It was crazy... The flames rolled over the mountain and it was quite intense."

By now, only two hours had passed since Pierro first saw the fire while in Ashcroft.

With the flames about 150 yards from his home, Pierro and the other 11 men got to work on protecting their properties. Among the squad that had assembled were a few former firefighters and a couple others who had experience.

There was little time to come up with a plan of attack.

"We didn't really have time for a gameplan," he says. "It was was just kind of do what we do. We just grabbed our hoses and had a couple of the younger guys just hosing the side of a hill and one of our neighbours had a couple skid steers so a couple of us were running those and just ripping up the dirt to make a fire guard, something to slow it down."

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Brad Pierro

At that point members of the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department were arriving on scene to help. They set up in the part of the community that could not be reached by the Pierro and his team's hoses.

"They went to one quarter and we went to the other three quarters and with our fire guard, our skid steers, and our inch and a half hoses and we just went at it," says Pierro.

As the fire continued to inch closer to some of the properties one of the older firefighters decided to take a chance and started a back burn from where they had set up a fire guard around the homes. The men started lighting fires of their own hoping they would burn up any fuel the wildfire could use in an effort to stop it from spreading.

"That's what really stopped it," says Pierro. "The back burn went up to the fire and burnt it out."

He says it was a tough call to start a back burn as it can go very wrong very fast, but at that point it didn't seem like anything else was going to work.

"I didn't know what to think about that. It had a 50-50 chance of working," he says. "But these guys are pretty experienced and they had been firefighting for years so they explained to us that the fire coming down has enough oxygen pulling into it that it will pull our fire into it, and it worked."

In the end, the battle against the blaze that threatened their homes lasted about ten hours and they had it under control by midnight. When the smoke cleared no occupied homes had been damaged and the only structure that did burn was unoccupied.

Pierro and the others didn't see any B.C. Wildfire Service workers until 3 a.m. the next day.

"We had a mop-up crew come in and that was the first time we saw anyone from the ministry," he says. "They did their mop-up thing and one of the bosses stopped and rolled down his window and said 'you guys actually stopped it.' That's when my uncle asked him who else was going to do it."

The summer of fire didn't end for the Bonaparte Reserve after the night they managed to save their homes. Just a few weeks later another fire sparked in another area known as Indian Reserve Two after a B.C. Wildfire Service back burn got out of control and jumped a highway.

"It came down onto our IR 2 area that's on Highway 99, Hat Creek to Lillooet," says Pierro. "It came down Aug. 1 and that's when we had another evacuation order for our reserve so we got them out of there."

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Brad Pierro

Pierro says the Bonaparte Indian Band and the province were much more coordinated the second time around and they held meetings to come up with a plan to defend the newly threatened homes.

"We put together a night shift which consisted of seven or eight guys on each shift. What we did for the day shift guys was fuel mitigation so they did weed whacking and cleaned up any deadwood around the houses. Then night shift guys would come in and set up pumps and hoses around the houses. We were pretty much just soaking for days on end."

The ministry set up a fire guard about 200 yards from homes that were closest to the blaze. Once again no homes were lost to the fire.

After going through what the Bonaparte Indian Band has had to deal with this summer, Pierro says he hopes this serves as a message to government that remote communities like the reserve he lives on need to be better equipped, trained, and prepared to battle wildfires.

"As chief and council here we are going to push for a little more preparedness for stuff like this," he says. "We are really going to push towards more equipment like water trucks and resources like that."

As the Bonaparte Reserve tries to recover from the fires this summer, Pierro says members of the community have expressed their gratitude for the bravery the men showed.

"We get the thank you's and the old timers come along and they'll pull us aside and tell us we did a really good job," he says. "One of the older ladies told us we are all warriors, so that was pretty cool."

Brad Pierro (fifth in from right, wearing black shirt) and the twelve men who stayed to help fight the fire pose for a photo with some other men who came later to help keep things under control.
Brad Pierro (fifth in from right, wearing black shirt) and the twelve men who stayed to help fight the fire pose for a photo with some other men who came later to help keep things under control.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Brad Pierro

To contact a reporter for this story, email Mike McDonald or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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