BC-Mike-Graeme-Shuswap-wildfires2023-30

What it’s like to flee a wildfire in B.C. 

As someone who has long frequented burning landscapes to put out fires, I hadn’t ever feared for my safety before. That changed the day two explosive blazes converged in the province’s Shuswap region

My partner Inanna Sokil and I are spending our summer fighting wildfires. It’s our sixth season working together, but this one — Canada’s worst wildfire season ever — has been different.

Our job is to save homes and other buildings threatened by wildfires. When we got to the Adam’s Lake fire complex, near Chase, B.C., our supervisor summed up the situation: we were going to have to fit five days worth of work into one. 

We spent two days setting up sprinkler systems, but there wasn’t enough time. The Lower East Adams Lake wildfire quickly took a turn for the worse on the afternoon of Aug. 18. Winds ramped up and switched directions towards Scotch Creek. We were redeployed there at 2 p.m. but, soon after, the fire cut off our highway escape routes in both directions. 

Extreme southerly winds and tinder dry conditions caused the wildfire to merge with another out-of-control wildfire — the Bush Creek Fire — spreading 20 kilometres in less than 12 hours, one of the fastest wildfire runs in B.C. history. 

We feared for our safety.

Amid the chaos of fleeing, I instinctively pulled out my camera and documented what I saw.

Scotch Creek Wildfire
Before reaching Scotch Creek, the wildfire spread towards the Scotch Creek Bridge around 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, compromising one of two highway escape routes for residents and firefighters. When our supervisor told us the other highway escape route was “a wall of flame,” my pulse quickened.
Scotch Creek gas station amid wildfire smoke
When we stopped at the Scotch Creek gas station at 2:30 p.m., the attendant said we were her last customers before they closed to evacuate. Her colleague came in and asked if she had packed up all their important documents.
A hand holding a sprinkler
We headed to a nearby side street to start setting up sprinklers around homes.
Flames in the back with a smoky, orange view of a field. Some trees not burnt yet.
At 5:00 p.m., the fire was only 200 metres from town. We had no choice but to stop setting up sprinklers and start racing door to door and alert as many residents as possible to evacuate to the boat launch — the only way out.
Wildfire evacuee
At 5:19 p.m., a masked resident stopped to take a last look at their town before evacuating to the boat launch on a bike. The fire descended quickly towards Scotch Creek, Lee Creek, Celista and the Secwépemc community of Skwlāx.
Fire evacuation boat launch
Smoke hung heavy in the air at the boat launch.
Wildfire evacuation alert on a phone
After we reached the boat launch to join evacuees awaiting search and rescue, we received evacuation alerts on our phones: “Evacuate immediately if you are in: Scotch Creek, Lee Creek, Celista, Magna Bay and Little River between Squilax Bridge and Sorrento. The wildfire poses a threat to life. Scotch Creek and Talana bridges are closed. Anyone in Scotch Creek evacuate by boat at 4248 Ashe Rd.”
Wildfire overtook the Scotch Creek Fire Department and Community Hall.
While we were at the boat launch, the wildfire overtook the Scotch Creek Fire Department and Community Hall. My mind was having trouble processing the fact that we had been there only a couple of hours earlier.
Scotch Creek Bridge during 2023 wildfires
We were relieved to find that Scotch Creek Bridge had been protected by a sprinkler system. As we came around a bend after the bridge, we saw the fire had jumped across Shuswap Lake. Flames silhouetted Skwlāx Mountain.
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Skeletons of vehiclesremained the next morning on August 19 in Scotch Creek.
Skeletons of vehicles, homes and other debris remained the next morning on Aug. 19 in Scotch Creek.
After the long night, firefighters were up early the next day to continue work.
After the long night, firefighters were up early the next day to continue work. Some were re-tasked to other nearby communities that are still in danger.
The Skwlāx Centre Gas Station was still smoking on August 19.
Homes and other structures burned in the First Nations community of Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw, 18 kilometres away. The Skwlāx Centre gas station was still smoking on Aug. 19.

As of Aug. 23, nine Indigenous communities are on evacuation order, according to Indigenous Services Canada.
Adams Lake fire camp
We learned our other crew members and BC Wildfire Service had saved the majority of our belongings from our tent, including my photography gear and my heart leapt.
Amid B.C. wildfire debris, two people find a singed section of our tent fly
Amid the debris, Inanna and I found a singed section of our tent fly — the only part of our tent left unburned. The fear and powerlessness we felt in the face of the fire, as well as the uncertainty of whether my photo hard drive — full of my work and memories — had been lost to the fire, gave me a small window into the feelings of loss and hardship experienced by many this fire season.

Updated on Aug. 24, 5:53 p.m. PT: a previous version of the story included a photo of a gas station burning — it has been replaced with the correct photo of a local business burning. This story was also updated to clarify it is Mike Graeme and his partner Inanna Sokil’s sixth season working together.

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