Sitting in her backyard on a warm summer evening, Cindy Lee Lowry is glad to be home safe. Days prior, she and a friend were in the B.C. backcountry for a “bucket list” trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, near the Alberta border.
But then, an evacuation order was issued.
“I just had to keep calm and focus on the hike and getting home.”
On July 15, the Verdant Creek fire broke out. By July 30, the evacuation order was issued; two days into Lowry’s vacation.
“I looked and there was tonnes of smoke,” Lowry said, explaining how conditions dramatically changed.
“Everyone just kind of stopped.”
She says she and her friend only embarked on the trip because no alerts or orders were in place.
The evacuation order was issued after winds in the area whipped up. Upon learning they had to leave, Lowry expected to be transported to safety via helicopter, but was told to hike out.
“You’re battling the elements of heat exhaustion, dehydration and then grizzly bears… now a forest fire is behind you.”
“We let them choose the methodology by which they came,” Rob MacDonald with B.C. Parks said.
Lowry is frustrated because she saw people from Assiniboine Lodge leave via chopper. But B.C. Parks indicates those visitors were using private services.
“When people think of the term ‘evacuation,’ right away it sparks images of people running towards the helicopter and some sense of urgency,” MacDonald said. “We had this very well planned in terms of timing.”
MacDonald says the evacuation order was issued as a preemptive measure, as the fire at the time was about 10 kilometres away from people.
“If it was an emergency, where time was of the essence and we needed to get everybody out right now, the province would definitely participate in that,” he said.
Lowry and her friend hiked south to Marvel Lake in Banff National Park. While initially head counted, she says no additional tracking took place, making it difficult for loved ones to know where she was.
“You’re worrying about your family and what they’re thinking.”
“I don’t know whether that was lost in translation or if that was even a plan, but that didn’t happen,” Lowry said. She believes tracking should have been more robust because there was no cell phone service in the backcountry.
“To try and track each individual, that just wasn’t necessary,” MacDonald said. “These people were planning on hiking out on their own. There was no risk at the time.”
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park remains closed. The Verdant Creek is listed as active.