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Flames Devour Dry Forest

Gordon Hoekstra, Prince George Citizen, June 24, 2004

A handful of ranch workers south of Vanderhoof continued a fire watch on Wednesday, hoping the wind didn't pick up and push the Kenney Dam fire -- the largest in B.C. -- in their direction.

The River Ranch foreman, Chris White, and two other ranch workers are manning sprinklers that are soaking the ranch buildings and a half-completed hotel on site, about 50 kilometres south of Vanderhoof, said Rudy Nielsen, owner of a nearby ranch.

Nielsen has had sprinkler systems from his Nulki Lake Ranch -- 10 kilometres south of Vanderhoof -- moved to River Ranch to help out. His son, Dean, foreman of the Nulki Lake Ranch, has also been travelling to River Ranch in the evenings to help with the sprinklers when there is more threat of the winds kicking up.

"You just have to keep the Honda gas pumps running around the clock -- those pumps create a really strong water spray," said Rudy Nielsen, who heads up the Niho Land and Cattle Co., which recently sold the River Ranch to a U.S. buyer.

Two days ago, Nielsen said he figured they would have to evacuate the ranch as the fire was within eight kilometres with winds fanning the flames. On Wednesday, the fire was in a hill area on the other side of the Nechako River, which the ranch fronts, said Nielsen, who is in contact with the ranch workers from his office in New Westminster. "I figure we're about 80-per-cent safe now," said Nielsen, who learned valuable lessons helping fight fires in Prince George in 1961, which threatened the city. "It's the winds that are the killer," he said.

Prince George Fire Centre officials reported no significant increase in the Kenney Dam fire on Tuesday evening as there were no winds from thunderstorms to fan the flames. The size of the fire remains at about 30 square kilometres.

The number of people fighting the fire has increased to nearly 180, including a crew from Saskatchewan, said fire centre spokesman Catherine Ducheminksi. A camp for the workers was to be set up Wednesday near the Kenney Dam, 70 kilometres south of Vanderhoof.

Ducheminksi said it's not possible to say how long it could take to get the fire under control because that depends on wind conditions. She said more thunderstorms are forecast in the region. The temperature in the Vanderhoof area is also forecast to remain just below 30 C until the end of the week.

B.C. forest fire officials are still not certain how the fire started, but said there is no record from their monitoring systems of lightning in the area on Sunday when the fire started. The fire started in the Nechako Canyon protected area, a heavily-infested pine beetle area, near the Kenney Dam. "It appears at this time, it's probably man-caused," P.G. fire centre manager John Tigchelaar told The Citizen.

The River Ranch has a colourful history.

Rich Hobson, the son of a Washington, D.C., congressman, built the ranch in the 1940s. Hobson also wrote several books about life on the ranch, which were later made into a TV series.

Most recently, the ranch was at the heart of a controversial $13-million investment scheme that was halted by the B.C. Securities Commission. The half-finished 40-room hotel is part of the investment scheme.

The ranch was later ordered sold by the B.C. Supreme Court, as part of a settlement to pay off mortgages on the ranch to a number of different companies in excess of $1 million. Although the U.S. buyer purchased the River Ranch, it remains on the market for $2.5 million, said Nielsen.