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Neighbours stand together through Coleman fire

Wednesday, 25 October 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Neighbours stand together through Coleman fire
Tanya Kindrat, left with Yoda, Barb Hemphill with Tessli, and Sarah Baillie stand at the front of Barb’s home, where fire licked at the base of the deck timbers but didn’t ignite the house during Coleman’s fire last week.   Photos by Shannon Robison

Neighbours stand together through Coleman fire

By Shannon Robison

For three families residing at McLaren Ridge, west of Coleman, Oct. 17 is a day they will not soon forget. The burned areas around their homes are a testament to the impact of severe grass fire — amazingly, damage to the houses is negligible.

Barb Hemphill, who lives in the house farthest west in the cul de sac, was concerned by the weather that morning and considered cancelling an appointment in Lethbridge due to the “horrific” winds.

She enjoyed her ritual cup of tea and shortly afterward the power went out. With nothing else to do and assurance from her son, Aaron, that she would be fine if she drove slowly, she decided to keep her appointment.

For some reason she chose to take the dog along. Tessli usually travels with her owner on short trips to town, but Barb says that when she needs to go on longer trips she typically “chucks a nice juicy bone” to keep the dog busy while she sneaks away. That morning, Tessli went along for the ride.

On her return trip from the city, Barb received a text message from her daughter Sarah Baillie, who lives two doors down. Sarah asked if Barb had lit her wood stove.

“I was trying to keep on the road” in the gusting wind, she says. “Suddenly my heart went into my mouth.”

Barb had planned to cook some eggs that morning and found herself wondering if the stove had been left on when the power went out.

“I began praying really hard,” she says.

Sarah had been preparing supper for her family — husband Scott and children Kuria, Joel and Lily — when she noticed smoke. It’s not unusual for smoke from her mother’s wood stove to gust over, but this didn’t feel right. When she looked outside there was heavy smoke and none was coming from the chimney.

She drove over to Barb’s house and was hit with hot ashes when she stepped outside. “There was no Mom and no dog and I panicked,” Sarah says. “I knew it was urgent to leave.”

In smoke so thick that it hurt her eyes and throat, Sarah drove up the hill to 19th Avenue to call her husband. She also tried, without luck, to reach the school bus driver — it was time for the kids to show up.

Scott told her he would be right there and suggested she go back down to retrieve passports and other documents, but Sarah said she was too scared.

After a phone call to Tanya Kindrat, who lives in the centre home, Sarah changed her mind about going back down the hill. Tanya and husband Jason’s dog, Yoda, was still in their house.

By that time, RCMP were on-site and the road was blocked. Sarah guesses it had been about 15 minutes since she drove up the hill, but adds that it was hard to judge. In that time a large tree had come down across the road and officers were reluctant to let her make a return trip to the house.

With their approval, and agreement that she wouldn’t take time to gather anything but the dog, she drove over the fallen tree and rushed into Tanya’s house. Yoda was frightened and it took some convincing to get him into the vehicle with her own dog, Maggie.

At the top of the hill she met up with her husband. They sat and watched the fire approach. When trees began candling, they pulled onto the highway and stopped at the viewpoint overlooking their property.

Sarah says the biggest stress was not knowing where her children were, as they often get off the bus and walk down the slope to the house.

From the bluff, she and Scott watched the fire sweep through the acreages below. In the dense smoke, they couldn’t see the houses, but assumed their home was burning before their eyes.

At last they heard from Kuria, who had borrowed the bus driver’s cellphone. The bus was stopped across from the Volker Stevin yard in Coleman and the family was soon reunited.

In Sparwood, where Tanya and Jason both work for Teck, Tanya was out the door immediately after receiving Sarah’s call. She made it through before the Highway 3 was closed and drove east to Crowsnest Pass.

“As I drove up, Aaron’s barn was burning and emergency vehicles were everywhere,” she says. “Volunteers were moving horses and visibility on the highway was zero.”

Jason was stopped at the highway barricades and returned to Sparwood to stay with friends.

Tanya met up with Sarah to get Yoda, and was invited to stay at Tammy and Don Forsyth’s house along with the Baillie family.

At this point, everyone was dealing with a degree of shock.

“What do you do?” says Sarah. She thought they would meet up with their children, regroup and make a plan, but quickly found that she wasn’t thinking straight.

“Thank God for Tammy and Don,” she says. “They invited six people and two giant dogs into their home.”

Over the course of the night, they found small moments of humour as the dogs took over the beds and made themselves at home.

“The video shared on social media was taken by a fellow standing next to me at the lookout,” Sarah says. “In it, it looks like our houses were on fire.”

It was a lot to digest.

The Forsyth home was one of only a few in the municipality with power that evening, and the women were grateful for this.

Meanwhile, Barb had stopped to see a friend when she reached Cowley. Rather than attempting to return to the Pass, she turned south toward daughter Theresa MacGarva’s home at Lee Lake.

“At 70, I’ve been through hard times,” she says. “And I realized there was nothing in my house that I couldn’t live without.”

She remained distraught over the possibility of having started a fire by leaving the stove on, until Sarah called again to let her know it was a forest fire.

Tanya settled herself by talking on the phone with her husband and her parents during this night of high anxiety. Family and friends were worried and feeling helpless, but Tanya finally shut off her phone to give herself a break.

The next day, she was surprised to learn that the red barn along the highway had burned. When she drove past it on her trip home, it appeared the fire had already moved through and the building was intact at that time.

Wednesday evening, they were allowed a brief visit to their homes. For the most part, things looked good. Jason’s truck sat, untouched, in the driveway and Tanya’s barnwood greenhouse had survived.

At dusk, the damage to the forest below their houses wasn’t apparent, but in the light of the following day, they realized a considerable amount of the forest had been lost.

Tanya felt a huge sense of relief. “We are so blessed to have the houses and to be able to come home,” she says.

In the aftermath, they can laugh over the quest for clean underwear and are grateful they had one another through the experience.

Sarah says the fire burned through their acreages before fire personnel had an opportunity to get down there. The burn lines come to within a foot of Barb’s home and she burst into tears when she saw those lines for the first time.

“There is a God, there’s no other way to explain this,” she says.

Concerned about drought conditions this summer, Barb had run soaker hoses along the fence until about a week ago. Stones are placed strategically around trees and the underside of the deck, and a clear yard is another factor that may have worked in her favour.

Tanya and Jason had done more mowing than usual this summer, which would have reduced fuel for the fire to feed on as well.

As they talk about things they will do differently going forward, Sarah mentions a sense of complacency that many feel. “I know now that we have to to take personal responsibility, have a plan and be prepared.”

Barb keeps photos and important documents in a fireproof safe and Tanya has a travel bag with her during the winter months that will likely stay in her car year-round now. All will keep their gas tanks at least half full. These are lessons everyone can take away from the situation.

Their homes, and the fourth house in the cul de sac, are undamaged and don’t even carry an odour of smoke. All three women realize how much there is to be grateful for.

Fire suppression work and monitoring of the area continue. With winds that gusted up to 130 kilometres per hour, a flare-up from a hot spot could have had disastrous results if fire crews hadn’t continued actively working on the site.

The ladies express deep thankfulness to all emergency workers and volunteers who assisted in any way with fighting the fire and with the evacuation and the aftermath.

Sarah is especially thankful to Karen Manzer, who has helped her family with the emotional end of things. “We didn’t lose anything, but went through all the feelings when we thought we had.”

As the days pass, the shock wears off and the ashes settle, these three women will remain united as neighbours, family and friends.

DSC 4787
Tanya’s greenhouse

DSC 4799
Yoda inspects the new landscape left in his McLaren Ridge backyard last Tuesday.

Read more in this week’s online edition here.
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From the October 25, 2017 print edition of Shootin’ the Breeze.
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