CARIBOO STRONG STORIES
When I was volunteering for the Fire Centre, a friend doing Human Resource recruiting for the Fire Centre walked by and I asked if there was anything else I could do. She said they were looking for a Heli-base manager to replace the fellow returning to Ontario. He showed me the ropes, seemed pretty straightforward. However, I found out that while there were three fellas from Ontario running the Heli-base, there would now only be two BC guys, and I was going to become dispatcher, with around 20 helicopters flying in and out all day, working a cell phone, a couple radios, and people running in and out. The most stressful 14 days of my work life, I survived, learned lots, eventually folks were allowed back into the town. Was told later by a co-worker that their predictions were that the fire was almost 90% likely to get into the town, which it thankfully never did.
– Harry Jennings
“The most stressful 14 days of my work life, I survived, learned lots, eventually folks were allowed back into the town. Was told later by a co-worker that their predictions were that the fire was almost 90% likely to get into the town, which it thankfully never did.”
We were directed to go to Quesnel or Prince George where accommodation would be found for us, but instead we chose to return to the Hubs Motel in Wells, where we had been staying. Each day for the next three weeks, we drove the few kilometres to Barkerville where we found plenty to occupy us during those anxious days. The owners of the Hubs Motel supported us to the point of even picking up our medication in Quesnel, and we were invited to afternoon tea and a tour of the historic house, by the lady who ran one of the Bed and Breakfasts in Barkerville, and the blacksmith presented us with pieces of artwork we had watched him create one afternoon in the forge.
In so many ways we were sorry to leave. The kindness shown to us had often reduced us to tears. In spite of the trauma of those weeks of evacuation, the people of this caring community had made our stay a pleasant and memorable one.
– Pat Mackay
My family and I left from Sugarcane at 6 p.m. on the day the evacuation notice was given to the City of Williams Lake. It was bumper-to-bumper and when we drove through hundred mile there was zero access to any businesses. The experience in Kamloops was amazing and we were all treated very well. We were away from home for two weeks and when we came back we got the full extent of the devastation. Spending our lives in the Williams Lake area made it hard to come home and see all the trees gone but thankful at the same time that everyone is safe and looked after.
– Byron Louie
Around the Cariboo, there is such rivalry with Quesnel and Prince George for sports teams, you just hate the other teams! But it was really nice to hear the people that evacuated to Prince George or Quesnel and Kamloops. I’ve never heard anybody say anything other than great things. Everyone in Prince George they’d say, stay in my basement, don’t stay in that tent- they cleaned out their motor homes, trailers, “come on in and stay.” People were so accommodating; it was such a surprise because you expect them to be the parents in the stands with that cutthroat attitude! You don’t realize, we’re all in this together. They just want to put you up for a few days so you can feel a little bit at home.
– Brenda and Dale Taylor, Owners of Taylor Made Cakes and Sweets, Williams Lake residents
I remember all the lightning that afternoon. In the next hour I had 2 friends stop by to tell me that the crown land behind my house was on fire. I called my husband again to tell him that he needed to come home. He would not return to work for the next 32 days. By 7 p.m. we got the evacuation. I couldn’t sleep at all that first night. The 2nd night we set up a make-shift pen made with chicken wire on the side of our trailer. The 3rd night my husband got up and let the dogs out to pee and my best friend, a cat named Hunter, escaped our trailer, never to be seen from again. I cried all day over leaving Hunter. Our friends at Spokin Lake Road ended up losing their home, and we never found our cat, Hunter.
– Derek & Kourtney Thompson, Wildwood residents
Wildfires- obviously there’s effects, and with the amount of things that grow after a wildfire, research does shows populations do bounce back. The recent moose surveys [show] they are on the upward trend- definitely not to historical levels, but the trend is showing wildlife is coming back. Elk are moving further and further west- they were always coming back, but now, anecdotally, people are seeing a lot more further out west than a couple years ago. Its created optimal habitat for elk.
– Luke DoxtatorTsilhqot’in National Government Stewardship Department Manager
Weather forecasts are how we plan, how we make estimations, but forecasts can change dramatically… changes hourly, as the moment goes by. There’s a lot of expectation that we have a magic system- they are meteorologists, but the science is not perfect. With dry lightning, the atmosphere is so dry that the dry air mass takes the precipitation and goes back into the atmosphere, it doesn’t reach the earth’s surface. Lightning strikes were hitting everywhere without rain; they were wind driven. There were so many fires the 1-800 call centre recording lines shut down; radio traffic was so heavy. We weren’t set up to communicate with that number of people. We lost 10% of the land-based area we administer in the Cariboo Fire Centre in the wildfire of 2017. If we had a 2017 every year, we would burn the entire region in 10 years.
– Cariboo Fire Centre employee
I saw wildfires as a turning point, catalysing greater recognition of the intrinsic sovereignty of the Tsilhqot’in Nation. The actions of Chief Joe, passes for checkpoints, the firefighting capacity, everything that we did was with the view of advancing our sovereignty and nationhood, and I think the wildfire really did make great strides in a lot of entrenched organizations. Even our organization, TNG, grew in our confidence that we could meet the needs of our [community], we saw our GIS team set up and step up and do a phenomenal job.
It was chaotic because everybody started putting stuff on Facebook, saying the store burnt down, our houses are burning down, the gym is on fire. I live in the home where my granny and my mom had lived, and it was really chaotic and sad thinking that our home was gone or was about to go. It was scary. It was so sad to see how frightened the elders [were]. I wish that, now with the position I’m in, I wished I could’ve helped our elder people more. What was happening out West – that was crazy. But the changes that the province and Canada are making right now because of what happened are amazing. We do a call to them bi-weekly, ISC [Indigenous Services Canada], and EMBC [Emergency Management BC], BC Wildfires are all on the call, and they are just willing to bend over backwards to help us in any way we can. It’s amazing.
– Betty Price, member of Williams Lake First Nation and Emergency Services Administrator with TNG since 2018
You’re talking with the mayor, the fire chief, and the CAO, when somebody calls and says the fire has jumped the river. So [the City] says evacuate the city. Being the ESS guy, I have to jump in the car and tell the executives at the CRD, and they say where will you move the people to? I need a plan, so I say we are sending [the evacuees] to Kamloops. We can’t go North or West, Horsefly because its an ordered area, Elephant Hill fire has closed Clinton and 70 Mile, so you send them to 100 Mile? There are orders in 108 area, so they’d have to go to Kamloops and Little Fort then back up to Prince George? That’s cruel and unusual. There’s no choice, we’re sending them to Kamloops. [They] said “you can’t, Kamloops said we’re full.” I said safety trumps no. An hour and a half or two hours later, the mayor of Kamloops called and said we hear you’re under order; welcome all your people, we’ll look after them.
– Dave Dickson, Manager of Emergency Social Services during the 2017 fires, former RCMP Officer
Commodore Crescent felt like no man’s land in some ways, and I’m sure Pine Valley did too, and maybe Fox Mountain. I’m not even sure if we ever were actually evacuated. I felt really nervous; I felt we should pack the car. So we did, everything we could cram into my little Toyota Matrix. It was going to carry 3 adults and a golden retriever and small cases for the three of us. It was cozy. We found the news from home was so inaccurate. The only one we truly trusted was Dale Taylor from our local radio station. We appreciated his daily updates. After being allowed to come home, we waited two extra days to avoid the masses. We were shocked that within half an hour of arriving home, the army was outside our home. They told us not to unpack. The white lake fire was closer now than it was when we left. I’m not exactly sure now, but I think it was 5 minutes to get out if the winds blew our direction. Life slowly returned to normal. I’m looking forward to camping this year, something we’ve always enjoyed, but now the least whiff of smoke and you are searching the sky for that billowing cloud.
– S. Fehr, Williams Lake resident
“The camaraderie and efficiency that my fire department had, made me so proud to be a part of helping to save what we could. As a whole, the experience was at times heartbreaking. Seeing the total loss of houses. So amazing to see how a community pulls together in a time of need.”
I immediately drove to the fire hall to see where we were going to be needed. Unfortunately, a lot of the fires were inaccessible by our trucks. I felt so helpless standing there with the others as we watched the lightning strikes start up 4 new fires in behind the Lexington area. Its funny (after the fact) to see what you actually grab in a panic. I grabbed clothes and photo albums and completely forgot underwear. At the time, I lived on Ferguson Road and a neighbour down the road had a donkey. On one of my patrols to check on the houses around me, the donkey was out of his pen and on the roadway. Utilizing the only thing I had, I wrapped police tape around the donkey’s neck and got him back into his pen. The day the fires started were my last shift as a police officer. Once it was over, I went and slept in my truck at the fire hall and then after a couple of hours transitioned into firefighter mode. I spent the next four days fighting spot fires. Filling the fire truck tank from swimming pools. The camaraderie and efficiency that my fire department had, made me so proud to be a part of helping to save what we could. As a whole, the experience was at times heartbreaking. Seeing the total loss of houses. So amazing to see how a community pulls together in a time of need.
– Sam Nakatsu local RCMP Officer and firefighter with 150 Mile House VFD
We would have had more homes burned up in community but there was a handful of community members that stayed behind and saved structures, homes. We honoured them afterwards, but at the time, it was crazy. The resources were stretched so thin you wouldn’t believe it. I got to the Fire Centre, I got orientated and they said okay Willie, we’re giving you this zone – secure this line from here to here, here’s 40 firefighters, you have 3 pieces of equipment and access to a helicopter- do your best. And they kicked me out the door. I did the 14 days and you’re doing big days. I was doing 30-40 thousand steps a day. The second 14 days were cool because there were all these international firefighters that were here. So I get back, and they say here’s a 20 pack of Mexican firefighters, here’s your translator, go kick some ass. The language barrier was pretty crazy, learning simple firefighting terms like how to patrol and pick hotspots, it was an experience on its own. But these were some of the hardest workers I’ve ever worked with. Even with the language barrier, you find a way to communicate in times of need and emergency situations.
– Chief Willie SellarsChief of Williams Lake First Nation and former Wildland Firefighter with the Province of B.C.
“We would have had more homes burned up in community but there was a handful of community members that stayed behind and saved structures, homes. We honoured them afterwards, but at the time, it was crazy.”
There are many to be grateful to, and for. The local firefighters who toiled to save a home while their own lay in ashes, those who came from far away places to help. Police and military personnel who left their own families and communities to be part of a greater good. Civic officials having to make unimaginable decisions affecting real lives, real people. Responsibility of the job? Perhaps. But surely no one runs for office expecting to face such dire circumstances.
We collectively are in their debt. They are the heroes amongst us.
– Peter Priestman
Before: June 2017
Scenic | Retirement Possibilities | Renovations and Homestead Cleanup | Contentment with Life | Family Heirlooms | Quiet
During: July 2017
Locked Out | Fires Everywhere | Worries about Livestock and Possessions | Return Home | Evacuation Warnings | What to take? What to Leave? | Where to Go? Livestock Housing? | Helicopters, Water Bombers, Smoke | Meetings, Advice, Confusion
Evacuation #1 to Chimney Lake
Essentials Only | Fire Goes By, Close to Home | Home Again | Meetings, Advice, Confusion
Evacuation #2 to Chimney Creek
Essentials | Most Livestock Moved | Separation From Spouse | Fire Goes By, Close to Home | More Meetings, Advice, Confusion
Sprinklers on House | Sprinklers on some outbuildings | Packed with essentials – ready | Plans for most Livestock | Generator Running | Phone Working | No Explanations, No Communication | 10 Minutes from local Fire Center | Helicopter Flying Above | Closest Neighbours worried too | Quiet
First Panic | Then: Plan Put In Action | Loading Up | Moving Out | Fire Fighter Equipment Too Late | Roar Of The Fire | BURNED OUT!
After: August 12
Shattered | Cut Off, Confused | Where To Start? | Support from Family, Friends | Sorting and Cleanup | Three Moves | PTSD
2 Years Later
After months of planning and continuing support from Family, Friends and Insurance, housing arrived. Being home has been extremely important. Nightmares, sadness, and depression have become less. Trying to remain positive and excited about new home, sheds, fences, livestock, garden area and possessions continues.
Old Memories remain and new ones are continually being made. We Are Survivors.
By Lorraine Jasper