October 25th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. ###
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
In the Absence of Light- There Was Fire
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Investigators at the source of the October 17th fire in Crowsnest Pass
In 2005 shortly after I had moved back to the Pass there was an event pretty well unprecedented in the area’s history. An early September snow storm shut down the whole Pass and destroyed dozens of power lines and poles. It was cataclysmic and for five days we were left with no power. I recall vividly getting up at 5 a.m. to go to work in the Elk Valley during that worrisome outage.

What struck me as profound then was the night sky I beheld each morning before dawn. The firmament in the Pass was revealed to me in a way I had not ever seen before. With the removal of power and traffic light pollution the spectacular display of the heavens was awe inspiring. I remember thinking then how unfortunate it was that we have flooded ourselves with so much light that this celestial display was vastly diminished.

Again last Tuesday we were visited by yet another scary power loss, this time for just under twenty four hours for most. That evening I was once again reminded of the wonders of our universe as the stars seemed to want to leap out of the sky above Bluff Mountain. Once again all ambient light was gone and the highway was closed. I found it such an irony that at a time when we were under such a tenuous alert from the fire that such remarkable beauty would be revealed to us all.
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For me it was a brief moment of joy in a rock and roll ride that started with my neighbour pounding on my door around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The power had been out since 11:30 so we were quietly waiting hopefully for its return. He came to warn us of the advancing fire and suggested I back my motorhome away from the heavily grassed hill I live up against. I ran up the hill and beheld that wall of blue smoke at the volcanic's corner on the west side of town. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.

Earlier that morning my wife Lorraine noticed a huge plume of smoke down towards the east side of Bushtown. So I photographed that then came home to find the 100 kph winds had ripped my drain spout off the side of the house, flipped over my barbecue and torn my wind chimes to pieces. I knew it was going to get rough. Just before we lost power at noon I ran up the hill above my house once again to get a better look at what appeared to be a really unusual sky to the west. I was gob smacked at what I saw. I have photographed a lot of chinook sky features but this nasty looking one clearly spelled trouble and trouble it did give.

So getting back to the fire alarm scenario. I jumped into the motorhome to fire it up and the engine battery was dead. Having pulled the coach batteries and stored them I ran downstairs and hauled them up into the coach and quickly hooked them up (backwards unfortunately).
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Reverse polarity is not a good thing and although I got the camper started and backed it down the road to the end of the block, I had somehow fried the 12 volt charger/converter system to it. This system includes the water pump, lights, furnace etc. So I was thinking then if I needed to get out of town the motorhome would not be much use to me to stay in!

By about five o’clock we had moved some supplies, our two dogs and two cats and assorted essentials like a litter box to the coach, all loaded while the wind just howled down the street and it had begun to rain. We even invited our worried neighbour Mary and her dog in and then we all sat waiting in that giant escape vehicle for word to clear out. The wind began driving the rain down the street in sheets and rocking the motorhome, which weighs 10 tons by the way, back and forth to the point that we couldn’t stand up safely.

I wondered what kind of hell we had stepped into. The thought of losing everything can be terrifying. I lost count on how many times I ran up that hill to check on the fire, past garden hoses we had laid out before the rain came. What I was watching for specifically was flames to break over Iron Ridge (Crowsnest Volcanics) or for the dozens of emergency vehicles that I could see from my vantage point to begin pulling back, which would have been my signal to hit the road. Later in the evening we abandoned the motorhome and went back to the house where we sat around our gas fireplace trying to keep warm. It really is a sobering reminder how critically important power is in our lives when it is taken away so suddenly.
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As we waited I monitored on-line for Alberta Alert or Municipal updates and also periodically checked the Fortis Outage Map site on my phone. It was showing two interesting things when I zoomed into the Pass. Two upside down tear shaped icons, one red and one green that demarked outages. The red one had the letter u in the middle and was positioned up near the Coleman substation in Graftontown. When I clicked on the icon it indicated the time of the (unplanned) outage and expected time of restoration plus the estimated number of customers affected. There was also a second marker, curiously enough, just about where the west side of the fire appears to have started. It was green which by color coding means between five and fifty customers affected. No doubt there will be a thorough investigation as to how it all started and I would expect the results will eventually be released. My observations are just conjecture at this point.

Every time I checked on the expected power return it changed from 6 P.M. to 10 then 12 and eventually went to 10 A.M. Wednesday morning. It was a very long sleepless night as dozens of emergency vehicles and transports trucks carrying support equipment moved west on the highway which is a block away from my house. When power is out flashing lights on the highway are very prominent.

I got a really good scare on one of my late night flashlight equipped trips up the hill to check yet again on the demon to the west. Around midnight I observed a few of our fire trucks slowly pulling back and moving east into Coleman, lights flashing but no sirens. It was an unnerving sight to watch from up on high as they quietly passed through town, then shut down their lights and kept going east. I learned a little later through a phone interview given by Mayor Painter that the crews were exhausted and pulling back to get some rest and that Alberta Forestry crews would carry on the night fight.
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As the rains continued off and on Wednesday and each hilltop check revealed no flames and very diminished smoke I found my evacuation alert uneasiness easing somewhat. We kept our suitcases and kennels et al at the door in readiness and monitored the updates. When the power came back on around noon I breathed a sigh of relief, as undoubtedly did everyone else, as this critical part of all our lives was reenergized. The phones beeped the digital clocks and the stove display flashed, the refrigerator began its quiet hum and the high efficiency furnace roared to life.

When I finally came to accept that those amazing municipal front liners and forestry crews had this fire under control my mind then turned to consider an important fact. I, along with many others here in the Pass, was not prepared for this event. At its worst moment on Tuesday, as I stood in the middle of my house in a panic wondering what the hell to grab, I recognized I needed a plan. I needed to be prepared. Bob Dylan’s song came to mind:

“Come gather around people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.”
Welcome to the new norm folks.

Author’s Note: I found it ironic that as the frozen remains of Halley’s comet’s tail zipped through the sky on Friday night, had the outage happened during this amazing meteor event we all would have found observing this dazzling display a helluva lot easier.
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October 25th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. ###
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