On Sept. 2, Chris Brown sat in his boat and watched the Elephant Hill fire roar up to his property.
“It was just like a monster blowtorch going down the south side of the lake. All of these trees were erupting into flame faster than an animal could even run away from. It was just crazy,” says Brown, who owns the Paradise Bay Resort on the south side of Sheridan Lake.
“Where the resort was just all turned black, just with smoke. Like a pyroclastic cloud just came through the resort. You could see it coming through the back and it worked its way to the front and then it worked its way to the water and we were just sitting out in the water and everything just disappeared in that black cloud. We couldn’t see anything.”
The story, for Brown, begins almost two months earlier on July 7, when the Elephant Hill fire, then known as the Ashcroft Reserve fire, was only a day old.
‘When I knew that fire got away from those guys, I said that fire is going to get here,” he says. “I actually thought it was going to be here a week sooner.”
Through the summer, Brown says he often sat at an empty resort as cancellations poured in, despite having the resort open and accessible by road, unaffected by fires nearby.
He calls the summer a “total disaster” for business, adding that he’s likely lost money this year. He relies on the long weekends for business and this year that business just didn’t come.
When the Elephant Hill fire finally started to approach, he started preparing.
“I had had sprinklers up on my house and behind my house and every day I would go out with the fire hose and wet down all the trees around my house, because I’m surrounded by trees,” he says.
When the west and southern portion of Sheridan Lake was evacuated on Aug. 30, Brown stayed behind. He packed his furniture and belongings out, but hoped he could save his house and shop should the worst happen.
On Sept. 1, the day before the fire reached the resort, Brown slept in his boat, fearing the fire could reach his house before morning.
In the meantime, Brown did his best to keep his house, and several other cabins along the south side of the lake, wet.
In the days before the fire reached the lake, structural protection crews from Ontario showed up at the resort and outfitted the place with more sprinklers. Then, using his boat, Brown helped shepherd them to the cabins inaccessible by road to do the same.
“We were all here on Saturday at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and you could tell that the fire was close,” he says. “We’d see trees erupting into flame to the north west of us, and there were probably 20, 30 guys around the place and it started to burn pretty ferociously over there.”
The structural protection units were forced to leave, while Brown and one other local hopped in the boat to watch the fire approach.
He says he had no idea whether his buildings had survived.
“I was sure nothing could survive that. I was sure I was sitting out there and with that smoke I figured I would come over here and there would be seven buildings on fire,” he says.
“We just waited for about 20 minutes as that cloud came towards us slowly across the lake. It would come out into the lake 100 yards or so, and then, I don’t know, the wind just started to change coming from the north west,” he says.
“It just blew all the smoke out of here. The smoke cleared out and I couldn’t believe it. All the buildings were still standing and the fire that was on the south shore just pushed more south.”
Together, the two that had stayed put out spot fires at the back of the property, and shortly after all the firefighters reappeared, set up, and started fighting fire behind the resort.
Brown says he’s not sure how much time he spent watching the fire burn from the boat.
“Time just stood still as the whole world was burning around me.”
Staying was the right decision in order to protect his property, says Brown, but he has high praise for the firefighters and structural protection crews he saw at work in the area.
“They did show up on time and they did do their stuff, but I think it’s always better if you are there to help, because then they go, oh, okay we’ll give this guy a hand. But even all the cabins we went to, the boys did a great job. I thought they really worked their little hearts out and got sprinklers set up everywhere, hose and pumps. They ran miles of hose, just amazing.”
The fire only reached a small corner of his property. Looking at the south shore of Sheridan Lake he says, a burnt patch about a kilometre long is visible, but looking at the resort no one would be able to tell the fire came so close.
While Brown sold Paradise Bay before the summer began and has plans to move to the Kootenays and run a campground in town and away from the forest, he says he’s made lots of friends on the way out, between the firefighters helping to protect homes, and the home and cabin owners that he helped set up sprinklers for.
“It’s too bad I’m not staying because I think this place would become more popular because of this,” he says.
Still, he says the summer was a roller coaster ride.
“People just have no idea when a fire comes roaring in at 40 km an hour, the terrifying power and the feeling of helplessness that you have. You can’t do anything but get out and if you can’t, you’re going to die,” he says.
“We were so, so lucky. A lot of people were praying for me and I did a lot of work to mitigate fire damage if it came here. I think both those things worked.”