Off-roaders waiting to assess fire damage near Harrison

Wood Lake fire has remained at 650 hectares for days, but recreational users of Harrison area planning clean up efforts

A group of off-road enthusiasts were among the first discovered a fire near Wood Lake

Once the massive fire near Harrison Lake stops burning, local off-road enthusiasts will be some of the first to venture back into the area.

On Wednesday, as the fire was still burning at 650 hectares, they chatted online about possible clean up efforts, getting up there to assess the damage, and eventually rebuilding the area they love so dearly. It’s been a hard fire to watch for regular visitors to the area, as the flames quickly spread through the underbrush and into the trees on Sunday.

Myles Denman was one of the first to stumble onto the scene of the fire, when it was just starting, as he and his wife were four-by-fouring in the area that morning.

“We probably came across it around 11:40 a.m. or so,” he said. “We were on our way to Hale Creek, a favourite spot for us wheelers.”

While it was still relatively small, it was beyond anything they could handle alone.

“It was clear that it needed major resources immediately,” he said. “Nothing we could do with a couple shovels and no water.”

They called it in, with the little reception available, and stayed a safe distance away to watch the initial firefighting efforts.

“They did everything they could, trust me,” he said. “We watched the whole response.”

Hale Creek was one of the areas members of the Four-Wheel Drive Association have been hoping won’t be destroyed by the fire.

Denman goes up there every couple months, he says, but it’s a busy recreation site with off-roaders going up there daily.

Camping at Hale Creek is free, and the site is located along the western shore of Harrison Lake, about 23 km up West Harrison Forest Service Road. Members of the Four-Wheel Drive Association helped build a log picnic shelter at the site, and keep the area well maintained.

It’s located right at the fire, which has now grown (Thursday evening) to about 1,325 hectares.

“It’s sad to think that the shelter has probably burned,” he says.

Denman and other members of the Four Wheel Drive Association of B.C. are some of the heaviest users of local backroads and recreation sites. But they also pride themselves on being caretakers of the land, and organize cleanup parties regularly, especially in the summer months when partiers move in and take over the forest and beaches.

“Real wheelers and outdoor enthusiasts take care of our playground,” Denman said. “Then there are the punks, usually the younger crowds who leave garbage and disrespect the place.”

The BC Wildfire Service has stated the fire was probably human caused, but the actual cause or intent of the initial fire is still unknown. When Denman and a handful of others came across the fire, it was already too large to stop with the usual gear they carry.

They called it in and shortly after, helicopters were on scene dropping water. But it grew quickly anyway, from those first few flames on Sunday morning, to 100 hectares on Monday and then 600 hectares on Tuesday. Rain and continued firefighting efforts seemed to keep the fire steady at about that size throughout Thursday. But on Thursday evening, officials announced they had gotten a better estimate, at 1,325 hectares.

They are closely watching a number of sites, including the Harrison Fire Lookout. The structure has historical significance, and was used to keep an eye on fire situations prior to new technology. It’s been well preserved, and this week firefighters took extra efforts to douse the structure and surrounding area with water and fire suppressant.

So far, the tower seems to be unscathed.

“Hale Creek I’m afraid might have already succumbed to the fire,” Denman said. “Sunrise Lake is just up the mountain across the main road, then if it keeps moving northward it could burn to 20 Mile Bay. There’s also a multitude of hidden spots that people have built, little camping spots et cetera.”

It’s estimated that hundreds of campers were moved out of the area on Sunday and Monday, as the fire grew. The logging road through the area begins at Harrison Mills, southwest of Harrison, travels through Sts’ailes, and follows the lake on its western shore before veering off toward Pemberton. The area is filled with tiny lakes, creek fronts and other idyllic off-the-grid campsites.

The area may have become busier over the past few years because other recreation areas have been gated off to the general public.

“I would say easily thousands of people use the whole west side, especially since the RCMP started cracking down on people at Stave Lake and Sylvester Road,” he said.

Coquitlam has had some success with a key program at Eagle Mountain. Users who wish to access that area visit the municipal office and put down a deposit for a key, and leave their information. That way, the municipality has a record of who has access to the area.

“We all want to protect our playground from the idiots,” Denman said.

To report a wildfire or open burning violation, call 1 800 663-5555 toll-free or *5555 on a cell phone.

Map showing the restricted area around the Wood Lake Fire as of Aug. 7.