Recollections from the Chimney Rock Fire

Smoke erupts as the wind warning sign on Highway 22 shows winds 122 km/hr. Photo Credit: Parks Canada Photo, Mike McLean.

On Wednesday, October 25, a massive fire broke out near Chain Lakes Provincial park. Alberta Wildfire quickly listed the blaze as “out of control” and an evacuation notice was put in effect for residents on all of Chimney Rock road and south to Highway 520 on the west side of Highway 22. As the fire tore through the area, and smoke billowed throughout the hills, residents had to make decisions on what to take, and when to go.

Monica Schlosser of the Rocking P Ranch

Monica Schlosser, of the Rocking P Ranch, headed out bright and early Wednesday morning to wean over 350 head of cows at one of their properties, Willow Creek Place, on the Chimney Rock road. As they gathered cattle they were unaware that the pasture they pulled cows and calves off of would later be the exact same pasture a massive 1,200 hectare fire would decimate a mere few hours later. “We had the cows corralled and were loading calves on a liner when we looked up to the south side of the ridge and there was a huge plume of smoke coming towards us. We just kicked it into high gear, got the calves loaded onto the liner, sent it down the road, loaded two more horse trailers, and sent them, and by then they could barely see the road the smoke was so thick.”

Schlosser, her husband, son, father and two hunters who had been in the area when the fire broke out, were now unable to leave. A police officer arrived and offered the group an airlift out, that they turned down. “We knew that if we had too we could move our cattle from the corrals northwest away from the fire and to safety, so we weren’t leaving, and if we were, it was on horseback with our cows.” Schlosser notes that, although the plan was solid, the local police officer was not so sure. “He couldn’t turn around and leave, and he seemed pretty nervous to be there. We told him we had horses, and we could get him out, and he told us he’d never ridden before. Suppose you have to learn sometime!” she says with a laugh.

The Rocking P ranch has dealt with fire before and the knowledge of what to do kept them calm and organized. “We knew we had our escape route, but the smoke was so thick, it was pretty spooky at times. Blake, my husband, was up on the ridge watching for the fire. About two hours after it had broken out we knew it had passed through. We saw the water helicopters fighting the fire to the south, but we were worried the wind would change and blow the fire towards us again. So we put backpacks on and hauled as much water as we could and fought the fire on the north flank.”

Schlosser recounts that they lost six weeks worth of winter grazing, and miles of fence line, but all buildings, and livestock was saved. “We found out what an awesome neighbourhood we live in. That evening the police escorted a cattle liner, and four trucks and trailers to Willow Creek so we could load the rest of our cattle. They knew that we weren’t leaving without our cattle. People just came to help us, they put themselves in harms way and were willing to jump in. They came with water tanks and whatever else they could to help us, it was really amazing. We owe a lot of people a huge thank you.”

An image from Willow Creek Place Photo Credit: Rocking P Ranch

Sheila Harvie of the Chimney Rock Ranch Wellness Retreat

Sheila Harvie owns and operates Chimney Rock Ranch Wellness Retreat, and as the name suggests, her ranch was dangerously close to the fire. “We were very, very lucky that we didn’t lose anything in the fire,” she says. Harvie was away from home when the fire broke out. “There were working cowboys out in the hills, who had been moving cattle, fighting the fire with shovels and dirt so that it wouldn’t come near our place.”

Harvie flew into her ranch, via helicopter, as the fire was raging in the hills to ensure the gates were open for her horses to escape if need be. “It was extremely smokey, and the wind was billowing. It was harrowing. We flew in and popped the gates and then landed at a nearby neighbours to ensure they were safe and could get out if need be.” The efforts of the firefighters and the community meant that the fire was able to be diverted one half of a mile North away from Chimney Rock Ranch Wellness Retreat.

An aerial image of the path the fire took, directly to Highway 22. Photo Credit: Rob Jones.

Lucy Streeter of the T over V Ranch

Lucy Streeter recalls watching the Chimney Rock fire from her father-in-law’s, Harry Streeter’s ranch, the T over V Ranch, and thinking to herself that her own home, a few miles away, was on fire. “My husband, Ty Streeter and I, were preg checking all our cows, and someone asked me if I knew about the fire. I hadn’t heard anything, then I look up and two of our guys are running at us from separate directions, and I knew something was very wrong. We looked toward our own house and we thought it was on fire. So we jumped in our truck and headed that way, we are five miles from highway 22 and you could see the fire was at Chimney Rock and the wind was blowing so hard. Thankfully, the fire hadn’t reached our house yet. The firefighters later told us that at one point the fire was moving 6 miles an hour. It would have taken less than two hours to get to our house if the winds hadn’t shifted and blown the fire back onto itself. Our ranch was the next to go if the winds hadn’t changed.”

Ty Streeter is a partner in Wild Hoggs Bucking Bulls, and many of their top bulls live at Lucy and Ty’s ranch. “We started loading what we could, starting with our best bucking bulls. Then, as we were making that decision, trucks and trailers just started to pull into our driveway, one after the other. It was so surreal. People were just coming in droves to help us, because of the help we managed to load up thirty bucking bulls and seventeen horses.”

Streeter then turned to loading her own trailer. “I had three horses, two dogs, one cat, and three chickens in my trailer.” She laughs, “people are going to think I’m some crazy chicken lady, but our son, Jake has one chicken that he absolutely loves, so that chicken had to come, so into the kennel she went. Then I figured she’d be lonely, so I pretty much grabbed whoever I could catch to go in with her.”

The Streeter’s managed to remain calm because fire preparedness has been in the fore-front of their minds since the Waterton fires earlier this fall. “We had already thought about what we needed to take – photo albums, licenses, passports and birth certificates. Then I grabbed some of my buckles, bronzes and a plaque I’ve won in the cutting pen. Things that I could never get back if I lost them.”

At the T over V Ranch the cows waited in the corrals as the fire loomed closer, “our plan was to let them out at the last moment, depending on the way the wind was blowing. After the Waterton fire scare we actually got fire insurance for our cattle, so although no one wants to deal with that loss, we did have that in the back of our minds. Out in the hills, our neighbours and friends were moving their own cows away from the fire, but the wind would change so often. I could see how people die in something like this. You think you’re good and behind the fire, and then all of a sudden the wind changes, and you’re in front of it. We didn’t want to turn the cows loose first thing because who knows which way that fire is going to go.”