VERNON, B.C. – A father and his son defying an evacuation order to save their waterfront home from a raging forest fire instead ended up in a race to save a waterbomber pilot whose plane had crashed into the lake.
Ed Hall and his son Fraser chose not to leave when 2,200 of their neighbours were ordered to do so on Thursday and the Terrace Mountain fire spread in the hills across the lake from Vernon.
Fraser Hall said he was testing out some new video equipment Saturday, filming as the planes dipped into the lake to get water to dump on the fire.
“And this last guy came in and we looked at each other and said ‘Oh my gosh he’s got his landing gear down,’ and we knew this was a recipe for disaster,” Ed Hall said in an interview Sunday.
The pair watched in stunned amazement as the plane somersaulted along the water.
“But fortunately, the cockpit landed cockpit up. So the pilot was sitting in the cockpit, you know, kind of stunned or dazed or maybe he was unconscious, we’re not sure,” the father said.
Ed said he was already on his way to his boat before the plane hit the water.
An officer in a nearby RCMP zodiac boat arrived at the same time as the Halls and the pilot was pulled out within seconds.
While the officer took the slightly-injured pilot to receive care, the Halls attached a tow rope to the plane, attempting to salvage the plane.
“It went poorly,” Fraser Hall explained. “We were slowly pulling it along and we got about maybe 50 feet and the body slipped off the remainder of one of the pontoons and it headed for the bottom.”
Luckily, he said, the rope snapped, or their boat may have been dragged down with it.
Saturday’s crash didn’t slow the fire fighting effort on the hills above the picturesque lake.
In fact, crews made good headway, doubling up on the containment of the fire within 24 hours to 50 per cent.
A fierce thunderstorm that rolled in Saturday afternoon also dampened the forest, buying fire crews more time to build a guard around the fire, said fire information officer Isabelle Jacques.
The fire remains at about 4,500 square kilometres in size.
But that isn’t enough to allow more than 1,000 people to return to their homes.
About 2,200 people were evacuated on Thursday when the fire doubled in size and was spreading from the tops of the trees.
Twelve hundred people were allowed to return home Saturday afternoon when the blaze became a smouldering ground fire.
About 250 fire fighters are working on the fire, which is the third fire on the west side of Okanagan Lake in the last week.
On July 18, two fires in West Kelowna were fanned by winds into infernos that quickly devoured three houses and a mobile home.
At their peak 11,000 people had been evacuated and 6,000 were on evacuation alert.
Just as the last of those people were allowed home last Thursday, those near the Terrace Mountain fire were told to get out.
Both West Kelowna fires have been contained, but all those evacuated remain on evacuation alert in case the fires ignite again.
The area where the Halls live remains under evacuation order.
Ed Hall said they never intended to go.
“We got some fire-fighting equipment and decided we wanted to stay on the property and help defend our property.”
If the fire did get out of control, he said, they could always leave out their front door by boat.
“We didn’t feel our safety was compromised, and we thought well maybe we can help put out some hot spots.”
On Thursday the property was covered with a layer of falling ash, but Ed said they haven’t seen any ash in days.
“Up until noon Saturday, it looked like another boring day,” Hall said.