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'Driving through hell': B.C. family recounts wildfire evacuation, watching cabins burn

SLRD expands evacuation alert for the Gold Bridge area

Celina Dalrymple equates fleeing a raging wildfire to driving through hell.

“It was really, really scary. Dark, really hard to breathe,” she says.

Dalrymple, partner Jason Coons and her parents were ordered to evacuate Tuesday at 3 p.m due to the Downton Lake wildfire burning 110 kilometres northwest of Whistler. The group was staying at their respective properties on Gun Lake.

They quickly packed up.

“Right when I left it, the smoke got really thick and it started raining ash,” Coons says. “We had to pack up a lot of stuff into our vehicles and get out of dodge pretty quick.”

The day before, they had a clear view of the wildfire coming down the hill towards the lake.

“You could see flames, a couple 100 feet tall,” he says. “It was really steep terrain so stuff was kind of rolling down the hill and starting new fires.”

On Wednesday morning, they watched as the fire hit the lake's edge, burning cabins in the process.

The wildfire came ‘hard’ and ‘fast,’ according to Dalrymple.“

All of a sudden, the wind changed and it just started coming down close to the cabins,” she says.

Dalrymple and Coons were able to relocate her mother to North Vancouver, where the couple live.

Her stepdad is part of the volunteer fire department and has stayed back to help fight the fire.

“We just feel so bad. It’s such an awesome community up there and the people that have their cabins there have like, had them for generations,” she says. “It’s very heartbreaking.”

Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) board chair Jen Ford says it “is a highly volatile situation.”

A number of properties have been destroyed by the Downton Lake wildfire but the exact number is not clear. SLRD is in the process of confirming those impacts.

On Wednesday, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District said it would conduct rapid damage assessments as soon as it was safe to do so.

“These fires remain active, and wildfire, in general, is unpredictable,” says Ford.

The Downton Lake wildfire is now estimated to be 1,795 hectares in size and more than 50 firefighting personnel are battling the fire.

Cliff Chapman, director of wildfire operations at the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS), says structural protection personnel are out and working on the structures near the blaze.

“Whether or not we’ve got apparatus on every structure, I can’t confirm right now,” he said.

Ford is stressing to people that if they are on evacuation order to please follow the directions and leave immediately.

“We do not make these decisions lightly, and your safety is of utmost importance,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, the SLRD expanded an evacuation alert for the area. It now covers all properties from Gold Bridge to Brexton and south toward Gwyneth Lake Resource Road as well as North of Tyaughton Lake, and all properties north of Downton Lake, north of Carpenter Lake/Reservoir, and west of Tyaughton Creek, that are not already on Evacuation Order.

Find more info and a full map of the affected properties here.

Helicopters also responded throughout the day on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Downton Lake wildfire showed significant growth. It was driven by shifting winds, slope and large amounts of continuous dry fuels.

Structure protection and BCWS crews remained on-site overnight, responding to the incident.