NANAIMO — As a helicopter carrying Eben Sedun descended upon the Nanaimo Lakes fire, orange columns of smoke and trees burning like candles came into view. It was the first clue the veteran firefighter and his colleagues were in for a serious battle.
The 34-year-old Nanoose Bay resident, with four years of duty with the B.C. Wildfire Service, was part of the first crew of three firefighters to respond on the afternoon of Aug. 5.
At that point, the fire burning along Nanaimo River Rd. was estimated at two-to-three hectares in size.
“I knew straight away we had a pretty serious fire on our hands,” Sedun said.
NanaimoNewsNOW sat down with Sedun and colleague Morgan Boghean for an exclusive interview at the Coastal Fire Centre's Errington headquarters to learn what it was like fighting what ended up being one of the largest fires the Nanaimo region has seen in recent memory.
Sedun and his crew took note of the second growth forest ablaze and fuel-heavy slash burning out-of-control near power lines, which presented safety issues.
The hope was to keep the fire at its current footprint, but that didn't happen.
“Really quickly with the amount of wind, heat and fire behaviour that we were seeing that was unsuccessful and we had to pull back and re-evaluate,” Sedun said.
As afternoon gave way to evening, Sedun admitted he began feeling overwhelmed as the fire continued spreading.
Sedun pulled off a 20-hour continuous shift, which he said required “a lot of sugary drinks” and water, along with plenty of adrenaline to keep him going.
Reinforcements arrived at about 7 p.m., which included Boghean, a 15-year veteran of the B.C. Wildfire Service. Boghean, 34, lives just 10 minutes from the scene and served as operations chief on the Nanaimo Lakes fire for two weeks.
In five short hours Boghean said the fire exploded to around 30 hectares.
“Once I got there it was past the initial attack stage and we're getting more into the sustained action stage,” Boghean recalled.
He said additional firefighters and heavy equipment were requested and assigned to the fight the fire around the clock.
By Aug. 7 the fire charring both private forest and Crown land was more than 100 hectares. An evacuation order affected people camping in the area, while nearly 80 homes to the east were told to be ready to leave at a moment's notice.
Late in the first week Boghean said the fire climaxed and crews began making significant strides. He said the tables turned thanks to widened guards, controlled overnight burns and taking advantage of favourable winds.
A many as 50 firefighters worked the Nanaimo Lakes blaze, along with several pieces of heavy equipment and five aircraft.
The fire took a physical and emotional toll, which included the on-site death of a TimberWest employee, who was found deceased in his truck on day three on scene.
“We had a huge task and we couldn't stop what we were doing, we had to keep moving forward,” Boghean said reflecting on the death. “It was challenging, emotional and hard on a lot of people, but we rallied together and got through it.”
Boghean oversaw 40 fires this past season, most on the north island.
He's alarmed by back-to-back record forest fire seasons in the province.
“It's been overwhelming...it was exhausting. I'm hoping this is a trend that doesn't continue. We're still absorbing everything and taking it in.”
Meanwhile after 47 days on the front lines battling more than 30 fires, Sedun is proud of how the Nanaimo Lakes situation was handled.
“We did a professional job and at the end of the day it was mainly just timber value we lost on that fire, so I think we did pretty well.”
On Twitter: @reporterholmes