The Monster from Flight Level 330
Flying One of Kelowna Flightcraft's 727s Over the Fire Night After Night and Watching the Fire Grow
It’s 7:30 Wednesday evening as I taxi the Boeing 727 towards the active runway at Vancouver International Airport. Looks like it’s going to be a nice night. As my crew and I take off towards Winnipeg we can’t help but notice the amount of smoke lying stratiform across the entire province. Wildfires have been in the headlines for weeks and picking them out from the air is almost like a game being so far removed from it. “There are some big ones” said the First Officer as we identified some of the more than 800 fires burning in the province at the time. As dusk fell, the view from above was more ominous. The Crowsnest fire was clearly visible, and from 33,000 feet we saw the towering flames in jagged lines. We didn’t talk about the fires much after we passed the Rockies. Our conversation turned to other topics as we continued on to Winnipeg, Montreal then Ottawa.
The next day was anything but usual. I awoke and started my routine. Grab a coffee; go for a jog around the parliament buildings, dinner then get ready for work. My daily program was interrupted by a power failure. Probably be back on in a minute, I thought to myself. Traffic became grid locked in minutes. Nobody seemed to know what happened. My cell phone worked so I phoned our Flight Operations in Kelowna who informed me that the grid had failed and the whole eastern seaboard was out. I phoned back in an hour and was told we are going to try and operate tonight and to go out to the airport at the normal time. I called back and notified them that I had a real situation on my hands. My electric razor and clothes iron are about as good to me as they would be for Tom Hanks on that island. My tone was serious. Any interruption of the routine is cause for stress. Our dispatchers noted my problem without mention of the fact that a wildfire was now screaming towards them.
When we flew over the fire on Friday morning at 03:00 AM PST we could not believe the size of it. The monster had now consumed thousands of hectares and was getting close to Kelowna. The First Officer stared at the fire out the right side but it was not a game this time. He lives in Kelowna and was now trying to pinpoint his home through the smoke. As we flew out on Friday evening there was a gigantic plume of smoke towering over 30,000 feet high, which could be seen for 200 miles. I said to my crew, “This is getting serious”. I could tell by their facial expressions that they already knew that.
After the weekend in Ottawa it was back to Vancouver on Monday night. Not much to see tonight. Just smoke and lots of it. Throughout the week we watched the monster grow in size. The fire had spread exponentially over night and was 3 times the size it was 24 hours ago. We pulled out our calculators and converted hectares to acres and multiplied by three repeatedly to conclude that at the current rate the whole province would be consumed in eight days. We must have made a mistake. We checked our calculations and all concurred that they were correct. I thought it was time to start calling friends in the Okanagan.
“How’s everything going” I’d ask…..The response was very serious. “Were ok but I don’t have time to talk. We’re on one hour evacuation notice and I’ve got to pack”. Their state of emergency was much more grave than my power failure experience which I had vividly described to them on my cellphone just days before. I felt very helpless flying over the valley that night. Our company radio frequency was buzzing with pilots updating news from the front and making plans for their families. People had lost their homes and there was no relief in sight. On Friday the fire, which was consuming everything in sight, was now consuming my thoughts. This was the most serious disaster I had ever seen in my life because I knew people in the war zone. I had to phone again to satisfy my selfish desire for current news. My friends weren’t answering their phones. Some of the lines were out of service. The ones I got through to said I’m sorry, I don’t have time to talk on the phone. I sent emails and got a reply last night. It was much worse than I could imagine
“Its been a week from hell Dean... literally.
It went right behind our property and just missed us..but
nailed Don's house (his whole street is gone), as well as Al 's and Ken
properties are toast. I stayed to the end with my dad hosing everything down and
ended up literally running for our vehicles as an unreal funnel of wind and
smoke nailed us. I thought we were
goners. It was very scary and we thought we lost the whole farm. It was bad. The
next day though I was totally shocked to see our farm from the other side of the
lake. Don was not so lucky.
We owe a lot to the Kelowna Firefighters and the entire community has pulled together through this.
See you on the line.”
haven’t phoned my friends who lost their homes because I don’t know what to
say. I’ve sent
emails but it dawned on me that they don’t have computers anymore. They
don’t have clothes, furniture, food, or a roof over their head. The whole
thing seems surreal. It doesn’t matter why it happened or what’s to blame.
The task at hand is to rebuild and be thankful because like all disasters, it
could have been worse, which is easy to say looking down from 33,000 feet.
People lost everything. The pictures we’ve seen of the firestorms will be
etched into their minds forever. The healing process begins.
nature proves once again that it is the most powerful force on earth. The swath
of destruction is massive. Everything in the way gets put back into the earth
only to re-emerge as new growth. In the big picture it happens in nanoseconds
but for mortals it takes years. It either destroys us or makes us stronger. If
you wonder what hell looks like just ask anyone who was there. The emotion of
lives changed forever cannot be communicated and helplessly looking down at the
monster from my office in the sky, is something I’ll never forget for as long
as I live.
Captain Dean Newhouse