Watching the Monster From Flight Level 330

Air Line Pilot, October 2003, p. 28
By Capt. Dean Newhouse (Kelowna Flightcraft)

At 7:30 Wednesday evening, I taxied the Boeing 727 toward the active runway at Vancouver International Airport. Looked like it was going to be a nice night. As my crew and I took off toward Winnipeg, we couldnít help but notice the amount of smoke lying stratiform across the entire province. Wildfires had been in the headlines for weeks, and picking them out from the air had been almost like a game when we were so far removed from it. "There are some big ones," said the first officer as we identified some of the more than 800 fires burning in the province at the time. As dusk fell, the view from above was more ominous. The Crownest fire was clearly visible; and from 33,000 feet, we saw the towering flames in jagged lines. We didnít talk about the fires much after we passed the Rockies. Our conversation turned to other topics as we continued on to Winnipeg, Montreal, then Ottawa.

The next day was anything but usual. I awoke and started my routineógrab a coffee; go for a jog around the parliament buildings; dinner; then get ready for work. A power failure interrupted my daily program. Probably be back on in a minute, I thought to myself. Traffic became gridlocked in minutes. Nobody seemed to know what happened. My cell phone worked, so I phoned our Flight Operations Department in Kelowna, which informed me that the electric power grid had failed and that power was out on the whole eastern seaboard. I phoned back in an hour and was told that we were going to try to operate that night and to go out to the airport at the normal time. I called back and notified them that I had a real situation on my hands. My electric razor and clothes iron were about as good to me then as they would have been for Tom Hanks on that island. My tone was serious. Any interruption of the routine is cause for stress. Our dispatchers noted my problem without mentioning the fact that a wildfire was then screaming toward them.

Disaster Relief ALPA-Style

Capt. Dean Newhouse (Kelowna Flightcraft) says that the Kelowna Flightcraft Master Executive Council is using its website to disseminate information about fire damage and aftermath and about a fundraiser that was held during the first week in September. He noted, as this magazine was going to press, that the disaster was not over, that some 30 families from that airline were still evacuated, and that the fire was less than half contained. Capt. Newhouse added that the Kelowna Flightcraft MEC has been working closely with carrier officials to provide needed assistance and used e-mail to search for temporary lodging for the displaced families.

And Air Canada Jazz pilots have been offering travel trailers for temporary accommodations for those burnt out.

When we flew over the fire on Friday morning at 3 a.m. PST, we could not believe the size of it. The monster had by then consumed thousands of hectares and was getting close to Kelowna. The first officer stared at the fire out the right side, but spotting fires was not a game this time. He lives in Kelowna and was now trying to pinpoint his home through the smoke. As we flew out on Friday evening, a gigantic plume of smoke was towering over 30,000 feet high and could be seen for 200 miles. I said to my crew, "This is getting serious." I could tell by their facial expressions that they already knew that.

After the weekend in Ottawa, I headed back to Vancouver on Monday night. Not much to see that night ójust smoke and lots of it. Throughout the week, we watched the monster grow in size. The fire had spread exponentially overnight and was three times the size it had been 24 hours before. We pulled out our calculators and converted hectares to acres and multiplied by three repeatedly to conclude that, at the current rate, the whole province would be consumed in 8 days. We must have made a mistake. We checked our calculations, and all concurred that we had figured correctly. I thought it was time to start calling friends in the Okanagan.

"Howís everything going?" Iíd ask. The response was very serious. "Weíre O.K., but I donít have time to talk. Weíre on one-hour evacuation notice, and Iíve got to pack." Their state of emergency was much more grave than my power failure experience had been, and I had vividly described that to them on my cell phone just days before.

I felt very helpless flying over the valley that night. Our company radio frequency was buzzing with pilots updating news from the front and making plans for their families. People had lost their homes, and no relief was in sight.

On Friday, the fire, which was consuming everything in sight, was now consuming my thoughts. This was the most serious disaster I had ever seen in my life, and it was greatly affecting me because I knew people in the war zone. I had to phone again to satisfy my selfish desire for current news. My friends werenít answering their phones. Some of the lines were out of service. The ones I got through to said, "Iím sorry, I donít have time to talk on the phone."

I sent e-mails and soon got a reply. It was much worse than I could imagine: "Itís been a week from hell, Deanóliterally. It went right behind our property and just missed us, but it nailed Donís house (his whole street is gone), as well as Alís house, and Kenís properties are toast. I stayed to the end with my dad hosing everything down, and we ended up literally running for our vehicles as an unreal funnel of wind and smoke nailed us. I thought we were goners. It was very scary, and we thought weíd lost the whole farm. It was bad. The next day, though, I was totally shocked to see our farm from the other side of the lake. Don was not so lucky. We owe a lot to the Kelowna firefighters, and the entire community has pulled together through this. See you on the line."

I havenít phoned my friends who lost their homes because I donít know what to say. I sent e-mails until it dawned on me that they donít have computers anymore. They donít have clothes, furniture, food, or a roof over their heads. The whole thing seems surreal. It doesnít matter why it happened or whatís to blame. The task at hand is to rebuild and be thankful, because as in all disasters, it could have been worse, which is easy to say looking down from 33,000 feet. People lost everything. The pictures weíve only seen of the firestorms will be etched into their minds forever. The healing process begins.

Mother Nature proves once again that it is the most powerful force on Earth. The swath of destruction is massive. Everything in the way gets put back into the ground only to reemerge as new growth. In the big picture, all that happens in nanoseconds, but for mortals, it takes years. It either destroys us or makes us stronger. By press time, the fires had burned far more than 50,000 acres and destroyed 244 homes. If you wonder what hell looks like, just ask anyone who was there. The emotion of people whose lives have been changed forever cannot be communicated, and helplessly looking down at the monster from my office in the sky is something Iíll never forget for as long as I live.