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Climbers Face the Flames and Extinguish Squamish Fire

On June 26, James Hillier, Jessie LaFleure, Andre Muller, Ava Gardner, Mike Shives, and mystery man Tucker, rappelled into a fire in Squamish and extinguished it.

The June 26 blaze was one of many that’s been popping up around the world-class climbing destination, which has been under a thick cloud of smoke from near-by forest fires.

Smoke fills the air in Squamish.  Photo Colin Haley @colinhaley1
Smoke fills the air in Squamish. Photo Colin Haley @colinhaley1

After the June 26th fire, Hillier wrote the story “Fight the Fires of Hades,” which reflects on the June events and advises future caution.

Fight the Fire of Hades

by James Hillier

Friday evening began innocently enough. We had climbed routes on the Lower Malamute, a magnificent mound of granite beside the Pacific Ocean in Squamish, BC. After a successful evening, we were enjoying sunset beers at the foot of the cliff. We decided to take a stroll to scope multi-pitch routes on another section. Gazing upwards, we noticed wisps of smoke emanating from a ledge beneath Stooges Slab. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. We were immediately concerned. At present moment it appeared to be smoldering and was only faintly emitting smoke. We notified fire services nevertheless and told them we would report back once we got a closer look.

In the space of the 20 minutes it took for us to hike to the top of the cliff, sunset had become nightfall and the smoldering smoke stack had transformed into a blazing fire. No quaint cooking campfire – an uncontrolled roaring bonfire. To extinguish the fire, our initial plan had been to stomp it with our feet and to soak it with our water bottles – and if necessary, maybe even a beer. The rapid acceleration of the fire made such a response plainly inadequate. We were going to need help.

The fire of Hades near the Lower Malamute in Squamish on June 26.  Photo James Hillier
The fire of Hades near the Lower Malamute in Squamish on June 26. Photo James Hillier

Fortunately, the fire department was already on alert and arrived within minutes. However, the fire was inhospitably located 40 meters down the cliff. The fire truck couldn’t access the cliff, the helicopter wouldn’t fly at night and the fire fighters were mostly on-call volunteers without climb gear/training nor authorization to perform cliff operations.

Their plan was to let the fire burn, hope it didn’t expand up the cliff and use the heli to deal with it in the morning. As it stood, they couldn’t even do much for containment. Incredulous of this plan and worried about fire contagion, we asked how much water they had with them. “A whole truck full.”  They even had five-gallon backpacks of water with pump action squirt guns.

To us, the choice was obvious: take their water, rappel down the cliff, extinguish the fire, collect our medals the next day.

Rappelling into the fire of Hades near the Lower Malamute in Squamish on June 26.  Photo James Hillier
Rappelling into the fire of Hades near the Lower Malamute in Squamish on June 26. Photo James Hillier

Suddenly the knowledge acquired through years of hedonistic rock climbing had gained purpose for something actually meaningful. In the dark of the night, we sprang into action to establish belay anchors, set up ropes and harness in. Armed with government issued B-grade super soakers, we lowered into the black abyss to fight the fires of Hades.

Operating on two ropes to attack the inferno from both sides, we could feel the searing heat as we approached downwards. The pyre snarled loudly as small pine trees were devoured whole and the boughs exploded with crackling flames. The fire hissed in exasperation as we blasted it with water. The earth sizzled and steamed. The super soakers quickly ran dry and required replenishment. So did our beers.

In the illumination of the flame, the granite crystals sparkled as we ascended the 5.8 slab to arrive back at the top plateau. We took off the backpacks so the fire fighters could refill their super soakers at the truck and so that we could replenish our beers at the cooler. Though there was a fire burning below, we had caught it early enough so that it was still tame in comparison to a large forest fire hectares in size. The social atmosphere was relaxed and comradely. We appreciated the fire fighters’ daily heroism and they appreciated our assistance on tonight’s call. The fire fighters were a great batch of fellas and were consummate professionals. Despite their obvious thirst, they refused the ice-cold beers we offered.

But it wasn’t all fellas, there was a super cute blonde female amongst the group of volunteers. She was even a fellow rock climber! A babely heroine! We flirted and suggested she rappel in to show the boys how its done. She demurely declined. Rock climbing and fire fighting combined? Wouldn’t that be straight out of her dreams? We were mystified by the forbearance. Then again, the lot of us were middle-aged unmarried men who clearly didn’t understand women. Must have been against regulations.

Descending once more, we dropped a third rope to pull the backpacks up to be refilled by the fire department. Shuttling water up and down the cliff in this fashion, we efficiently contained the fire before it could spread further. Full-size fire extinguishers arrived on scene and we lowered them down to truly smother the fire. The fire chief had stated the fire wouldn’t be properly extinguished until we could “stick your hand right in her”. It wouldn’t be until 1:30 AM that the job would be considered complete with the fire’s hymen safely penetrated.

Admittedly, it was a fun and exciting night op. It was gratifying to have the rock climbing knowledge be put to good societal use. And there is an important lesson to be drawn from the experience.

The fire was almost certainly caused by some oblivious stooge having a cigarette or joint at the view point and discarding their butt down the cliff. Had we not spotted the fire so quickly, it would have quickly spread and potentially torched the whole Malamute. Forest fires are regularly caused by such mindless disposals. Do we not want to prevent beautiful places from being destroyed by carelessness? Shouldn’t we try to keep our surroundings litter free and pristine?

An image from NASA showing the hanging cloud of smoke over the West Coast of B.C.
An image from NASA showing the hanging cloud of smoke over the West Coast of B.C.

As our environment endures climate change and experiences drier conditions with pronounced water shortages, forest fires are becoming an issue of increasing prominence. A week after this incident, the number of forest fires in BC would sky rocket and the entire Sea-to-Sky region would suffocate in a cloud of smoke visible from space. Homes would be lost and a responder would lose his life. Yes, many fires are naturally caused by lightening and even well-intentioned individuals can make uncharacteristic mistakes, but we should promote practices that minimize the risk of fire.

Please make sure your cigarette butts are fully extinguished and that you dispose of them properly. A best practice is to carry a small metal or plastic container to dispose of your butts safely, prevent forest fires and keep the environment clean. Even if you abstain from smoking, you should consider keeping one so that if your friends toss their butts, you can lead by example and show them proper etiquette. You can even give them yours.

Let your friends know your disappointment if you see them toss butts. We can’t normalize incendiary littering through silent consent. Pick it up for them and shame them into rightful behaviour. Lavish your friends with praise when you see they clean butts on the ground and properly dispose of their own. Be careful with your campfires and make sure you have the means to put them out. If we want to protect our outdoor treasures, we have to be diligent about cigarette disposal and fire prevention. We all have a duty in this respect.

We hope you and your friends are mindful in the future. Thank you.

Epilogue – We still haven’t collected any medals, but at least our mothers are proud. Big thank you to the Squamish Fire Department, the Coastal Fire Center and the many volunteers, fire fighters and emergency responders everywhere who risk their lives to protect the public everyday. While this tale was a unique experience for us as climbers, real emergency responders deal with situations far more grave all the time. We commend them and hope their efforts are respected by us all doing our part in prevention.

West Cost Fires

Over 100 forest fires are burning in B.C., which is affecting people’s way of life. As dense sediment from the fires fills the air above Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and other coast towns, experts are saying it could last all summer.

Forest fire burning north of Squamish, in the Elaho Valley.  Photo Global News
Forest fire burning north of Squamish, in the Elaho Valley. Photo Global News

For more on Squamish’s smokey summer and the three major fires on the coast, visit here. If you’re planning on visiting Squamish this summer, check air quality reports and the weather.