What people in the Spallumcheen, B.C. area saw last Thursday was a massive plume of smoke coming from the side of Highway 97 as air tankers dropped streaks of retardant near the flames of a mill fire.
While onlookers were focused on the sky, on the ground there was a major effort unfolding to contain the mill blaze to a single property.
The fire at Mardan Enterprises was first noticed between 9:30 and 10:00 am Thursday morning.
Sheldon Matte lives and works at a scrap yard, on a property with several businesses, next door to the Mardan property.
He heard two loud explosions and saw a neighbour “ripping down the hill” and knew something was amiss.
Matte said at first the fire appeared ‘manageable,’ like something residents in the area might be able to deal with.
“By the time we got fire extinguishers and the water tank and everything, it spread to the office and that was fully gone. Then it was just one thing after another,” Matte recalled.
Mardan owner Marv Crombie was out making a delivery when the fire started.
Crombie said he got a call from an employee and returned to the business to find the office and some storage buildings in flames.
There was a concerning possibility the flames wouldn’t stop at the property line and could spread to several nearby scrap yards or residential areas or jump the highway.
Matte said the wind was blowing the fire towards the scrap yards and neighbours were nervous.
After initially trying to attack the fire directly, the first fire department on scene elected to take a defensive position.
Meanwhile, mill staff and neighbours used heavy equipment to build up the fireguard between their properties.
It wasn’t till the air support showed up that Matte was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
In the end, the blaze was basically contained to the Mardan property.
Cummings credits both luck and hard work.
“It was a lot of hard work by a lot of different agencies. Some luck was involved, for sure. The wind was at a minimum. If it had crossed the highway we would have been chasing it for a long time,” Cummings said.
Matte said the chaotic scene with lots of yelling and screaming as neighbours worked to protect their properties was replaced with joy.
“I feel really lucky. I’m super happy. We couldn’t ask for anything better. Everybody worked together…there was a lot of joy at the end between everybody,” Matte said.
Mardan lost virtually all of its inventory and about half of its equipment in the flames.
“My biggest concern was that somebody might get hurt and that didn’t happen. I was glad for that,” said Crombie.
Despite the devastation, Mardan said the fire won’t put the mill out of business.
However, Crombie is suggesting anyone with outstanding orders contact him because all his records were lost in the fire.
There’s no word yet on what sparked the blaze.