Gary L. Sigsworth photo of the Lost Creek Fire in August 2003.
Nicholas L. M. Allen
Aug 23, 2023
20 years ago, the Lost Creek Fire threatened the communities of the Crowsnest Pass and the surrounding area.
Looking back at the Lost Creek Fire, 20 years after it threatened the Crowsnest Pass and surrounding area, along with the current situation of wildfires in the surrounding area.
The Lost Creek Fire, which ignited on July 23, 2003, burned for 26 days. The 22,000-hectare fire, the largest in the Crowsnest Pass area since 1930, resulted in the evacuation of around 2000 people.
Many of the forestry officials, firefighters and locals commented on the difficulty faced fighting the Lost Creek Fire, in part to the terrain and winds in the region.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail during the fire on August 4, 2003, provincial fire information officer Norman Brownlee said 840 firefighters, 20 helicopters, three air tankers and 38 bulldozers were battling the fire.
Mayor Blair Painter was a firefighter at the time of the Lost Creek Fire and provided some insight into what it was like, saying it was very tense.
“For me, it was pretty much 24 hours a day, very little sleep. Maybe a couple of hours a night or day sleeping. We spent the majority of that time at the fire hall, setting up sprinkler systems on residents’ homes, maintaining water tanks that we had strategically placed throughout the community [and] keeping the fire watch,” said Painter.
He explained how Alberta Forest Services held morning briefings at 6 a.m. every day, getting updates on the progress of the Lost Creek Fire.
“As it progressed closer to town that was more concerning,” said Painter.
In 2008, the School of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge released a booklet titled, The Lost Creek Fire: Lessons Learned. It contained a message from the Hillcrest Volunteer Fire Department Chief, Jerry Neuman.
“The Hillcrest Fire Department located in the Crowsnest Pass, is normally a quiet small-town fire department, but in the summer of 2003, everything changed; some for the [worse] and more for the better,” Neuman said in the Lesson Learned pamphlet.
He got a call from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development officers to meet at the fire hall and discuss the upcoming threat of the approaching fire.
“From that point on everything in Hillcrest changed. Suddenly men and equipment coming from all corners of the province bombarded us and to say we were a little overwhelmed is an understatement. It took a little time and a lot of help from the people of the community to get organized. Once we had equipment staged and manpower on stand-by, the job of how to address the Lost Creek Fire seemed easier,” he said.
Neuman added that, “For such a small community, there are a lot of people with large hearts during a time of need. There were people who came to the fire hall with food and baking, and others who wanted to join the fire department or volunteer in any way they could. There were so many people with different skills that we had to start a list which ended up being pages long.”
The Lost Creek Fire changed the landscape and scenery but did not change the strength and support of the people in the Crowsnest Pass, added Neuman.
“I would like to thank the people of the Crowsnest Pass for the help and support they have shown. Because of their help we were able to save our beloved little community of Hillcrest,” ended the statement from Neuman.
One of the groups recognized in the ‘Lessons Learned’ report for their help during the fires was the Quad Squad. Members provided “local leadership” as they helped with evacuations, secured the area and gave “emotional support to evacuees and isolated elderly community members” in the Pass.
Mayor Painter said he thinks the people who lived through the Lost Creek Fire have become “very nervous and concerned” about being in the same situation with the current state of surrounding fires and the dry conditions.
“The potential is there for another fire,” said Painter, “There’s always that potential, and when you look outside and it’s super smoky and you can smell the smoke, you know that there are fires that are close to our proximity. That’s definitely concerning.”
According to Painter, it makes him more vigilant as he goes through the communities of the Crowsnest Pass, keeping an eye out for backyard fires and other fire hazards.
“It makes me very nervous. We have a ton of traffic going through our community and all it would take is somebody that’s careless to toss something that would ignite or is ignited out the window and then the potential for another fire,” added Painter.
Although the Crowsnest Pass may not be under immediate threat of a fire, Painter said people should be “extra cautious” with fires affecting “our neighbours to the west” in Sparwood and Elkford.
As of August 21, there are 81 active wildfires in Alberta and 380 active wildfires across the border in B.C., with the Lladner Creek fire near Sparwood covering 1295 hectares.
The Lladner Creek fire has 30 firefighters and operational support personnel, two pieces of heavy equipment and 15 structure protection personnel responding to this fire, with six helicopters being shared between Lladnar Creek and Mount Bingay fires.
The Mount Bingay fire near Elkford covers 2512 hectares and is continuing to spread, not responding to suppression efforts. There are 21 firefighters, 15 pieces of heavy equipment and 15 structure protection personnel responding to this wildfire as of August 21.
Now, 20 years after the Lost Creek Fire, the Crowsnest Pass remains fire free, but people continue to flee from wildfires across the country.