By Andru McCracken
Chikara Hiroe is the Incident Commander overseeing the fire on Mount McKirdy and he’s also connected to the man the mountain was named after.
He and his cousin David Carson, who is also working on the fire, both grew up on properties at the base of the mountain, and are great-grandchildren of Fulton McKirdy, after whom the mountain is named. Their families still live on the mountain.
The fire struck July 30th and quickly ballooned to 35ha, and smoke and flames were visible from town.
Ann McKirdy-Carson, who lives on the mountain, said she is glad the fire is being fought by locals, including Hiroe and her own son David Carson.
She said the locals are deeply familiar with the terrain, trails and creeks.
“One of the advantages of having local people manning the fires suppression crew (is) they do have more attachment to the land, people and places,” she said.
When the McKirdy fire first flared it caused McKirdy-Carson no small amount of anxiety.
“It looked closer than it was,” she said. “I could see flames licking over the ridge and at one point it was flaming a lot.”
It turned out the flames were a few ridges away and the situation was less dire that it seemed.
In an interview Monday, Hiroe said that even as the flames and smoke subside, there is a job to do.
“When you can’t see (the smoke), there is still a lot of work to be done,” Hiroe said.
Crews are cutting nearby trees that could fuel the fire and establishing access to water on all sides.
“At this point of the fire, the smokes [sic] are so small, they aren’t puffing up through the timber,” Hiroe said.
In spite of that, Hiroe and the fire crews make their way slowly around the fire’s perimeter checking for hot spots, often with their bare hands.
Hiroe said the fire was flagged as priority due to its proximity to town. Their main objective was to make sure it didn’t spread downhill. When the fire first flared, Hiroe was concerned.
“I saw the fire from town and thought, ‘That’s going quick,’” he said.
Hiroe said multiple lightning strikes had them rushing to contain the fires.
As Incident Commander for the McKirdy fire, Hiroe called in air tankers and organized the crews. He also called in a rappel team to build helipads in order to provide access for firefighters.
“I knew access was going to be a tricky one with this fire,” he said.
The local advantage
Hiroe said growing up on the mountain may have helped in a few minor ways.
“We know drainage names and stuff like that. We’re lucky in the Robson we have a lot of local boys on fire crews. They are familiar with steep terrain, they are outdoor enthusiasts, they are familiar with managing slope, fatigue, and injury.”
For his part, Hiroe said he treats the fire like any other.
“I don’t think of this one any differently,” said Hiroe. “It’s no different than any other fire around town.”
Regardless, Hiroe’s connection to the mountain is interesting.
A local history website, www.spiralroad.com, dedicated to place names and the people behind them gives a small biography of Fulton.
“Fulton Alexander McKirdy (1874-1960) was born in Toronto, the youngest of eleven children. In 1906 or 1907 he was one of the first to stake a homestead in the township of Cranberry Lake (now Valemount).”
After the fires of 1910, McKirdy was appointed fire warden, reporting to Revelstoke, the bio says.
Hiroe said his grandfather’s experience as a fire warden would have had its own challenges. For instance, they would have fought fires using hand tools. They didn’t have the help of heavy equipment, let alone chainsaws, helicopters, air tankers, mobile devices, or GPS. Fire crews would not have been full-time jobs either.
“They did things a little differently,” said Hiroe. “The first place they would recruit was the bar. That was common practice. They definitely didn’t have the resources we have now.”
A community effort
Hiroe asked to give a shout out to local crews and equipment operators.
“This is just one of many fires in the valley right now,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that we have local operators doing night shifts on the fire.”
He said local machinery operators know how to work in steep terrain, and Hiroe is grateful that they are willing to move equipment at midnight.
“It takes lots of people,” said Hiroe. “It’s challenging because the province is stretched. We’re lucky we have local contracting crews on fires.”
He also gave a shout out to Yellowhead Helicopters.
“They’re awesome and they improve our success rate on fires,” he said.
Hiroe thanked the local fire crews who are due for a break.
“They’ll deserve a few days after their 14 duty days are complete. Then they’ll reset and go right back at it.”