As an early summer day, Friday, July 7 dawned under clear blue skies. Weather forecasters called for mid to high 20s with a chance of thunder showers in the afternoon, and a rising humidity level during the day. It was such a typical day. The chance of thunder showers was in some respects welcome news, as little rain had fallen in the area since the last snow in April. The land was parched dry, fields had already browned from the lack of rain, berries dried on the vine, with the fire danger rating already at high to extreme.
Little did we know at the time what a perfect storm had evolved around us. Blustering winds beckoned early in the afternoon, black anvil clouds swirled and danced in the sky, scurrying across the horizon in a matter of hours.
In those critical hours, lightning strikes exploded fire on three sides of the community, close to homes and businesses. The local airport was one of the first to be hit, as fire raced the length of runways and consumed hangers and equipment alongside the tarmac Reports of lighting strikes were reported to the fire centre, as that same airport, faster than could be written down, quickly surpassing 200 hits. Homes in the path of those first strikes were devoured by flame before local firefighters could assemble and respond Almost immediately, evacuation orders and alerts were issued for the affected, outlying areas, residents having little or no time to get out, let alone secure documents and personal possessions. Farm animals were left behind, as were pets, equipment and any vehicles without someone to drive them.
Fire, fanned by strong winds, moved apace, quickly defeating initial responders’ efforts to save homes in the path of the flames. As the days progressed, structural protection crews were on the ground, many homes were spared, but those first few hours proved critical for many
For those living within the city, and those in the immediate region ringing the city, the fires posed no immediate threat, for now. By Sunday, evacuation alerts had encompassed most of the valley and surrounding hills. To the south, Ashcroft, then Cache Creek were evacuated; hundreds made their way to emergency reception centres in Kamloops. Days later, thousands of residents of 100 Mile House were compelled to leave. Flames threatened from the west, as the fire which started in Ashcroft days before roared northward, Day by day the weather forecasts, and specifically the wind, became critical need to know information.
That Saturday, July 15″ what everyone feared would happen did. Strong, winds from the north west increased, and a fire at a little known lake to the west expanded quickly. A wall of flame three hundred feet high jumped the one half mile wide span of the Fraser River at Soda Creek. In barely an hour that fire had reached to the top of the ridge, consuming everything in its path, a scorched earth. It was mere miles from the city limits.
In that same hour, evacuation orders were mandated for all residents of the city and region Smoke had filled the valley for days, as the winds picked up the smoke thickened, and a red glow could be seen to the north. The smoke hung in the throat, caused the eyes to water, a harbinger of just how serious the situation was.
The days of semi preparation and worry came down to this moment. What was important, how much should one take, should one stay, or go?? Could authorities force one to leave?? Inclination leaned towards defending the home, doing what one could to protect a lifetime of work and possessions. Countering those gallant ideals were the images of the conflagration that swept Fort MacMurray a year before. Hard, hard decisions to come to grips with.
Chilling words. Sense of disbelief.
Sense of foreboding.
There were no answers to the questions that kept repeating in my mind, rotating like a Ferris
wheel. Round and round.
It was time to go.
My dogs are used to travel, as they have gone everywhere I go. Not so with the cat, cornered into a pet carrier, and making clear her discontent. Shared stress.
Leaving the driveway that night, already past my bedtime, was like no other. Would this be the last time I’d see my home, my gardens, my forest? Everything I owned left behind, down that gravelled laneway. Into the unknown.
Fires south of Quesnel had closed the highway northbound, leaving only one option for the thousands now fleeing the city. That was ultimately the crux of the issue and why the evacuation order had come down. There was only one way out, and civic authorities had little choice but to act with an abundance of caution. Lives were at stake.
Thousands of lives. At every intersection, barricades, flashing lights and armed police controlled the flow of traffic. Had we entered a war zone?
Fifteen miles from the city is a rural road named Rodeo Drive. On a normal day. it’s a quick fifteen minute drive from town. This night, stuck in the gridlock of perpetual tail lights, it was two hours before we reached that drive. It was past midnight. At every crossroad, behind police lines, another stream of fleeing vehicles inched forward, merging as they could with the main thrust of traffic on the highway.
Family friends offered respite at Lac la Hache, an opportunity to get out of this madness for the night, a chance for some sleep and a fresh perspective in the morning. That day, it was the nicest thing that could have happened. Three hours after leaving home, forty or so kilometres away, I was ready for sleep, ready for the adrenalin to subside, ready to call a halt to this crazy night. For those still assigned to the ribbon of taillights, the journey would be much longer. There was no stopping in 100 Mile House for a pee break, or a refill of Tim’s. Already evacuated, it was a ghost town, save for the police barricades lining the highway. At 93 mile, the flow was directed east, for a seven hour journey to Little Fort. In Kamloops, emergency services and the Red Cross already had their hands full with the multitude of displaced. When the order came for Williams Lake to leave, Kamloops was unable to cope with the thousands now on the road. Evacuees had little choice but to head north, to Prince George.
For those travellers, it would take fourteen hours to get there, from the time they left home, to arriving at registration centres already functioning in the northern capital. Hungry and exhausted beyond reason, an army of volunteers became hosts and consolers, and did whatever they could to help.
In those two weeks of July, over forty thousand people were impacted by the fires. Such an event isn’t something a community can practice for, work out the bugs. Still, no one lost their lives, there were no mishaps on the road, in spite of how long the journey was, into the wee-est hours of the morning.
Over one hundred homes were lost in that time, in rural areas which generally interface with forest lands. Their lives unilaterally changed their anguish hard to imagine. They face a difficult journey back to normal.
It could have been so much worse.
Days away stretched into a week. Stressful, emotional days Every newscast monitored, for news that signalled the end. Waiting for word when no word came. It would be two long weeks before authorities allowed us to return. For some rural residents, it would be another week or two before their return was permitted.
Normal was a long way off.
And things could never be as they were.
Over fifty million cubic metres of timber was burned in the Cariboo, seriously affecting industry towns dependent on the working forest. Fully half of the landmass that makes up the regional Local businesses suffered long after citizens began to return, as many employees didn’t come the district was scorched in the many blazes.
Local businesses suffered long after citizens began to return, as many employees didn’t come back, for various reasons. Others were compelled to discard inventory due to smoke contamination and await resupply before resuming business. The weeks of stress and upheaval triggered a form of post traumatic stress disorder, as mental and physical exhaustion took their toll. It would be weeks before ambition, focus and energy gain a foothold. A new normal.
There is a simple, stark beauty as the sun rises over a blackened landscape on a frosty morning. New plant life springs from the ashes, even as the fangs of winter overtake a changed, charred landscape. Life resumes in the harshest of conditions. So it is with the land.
For people, there is a new reality, a new awareness. We have a view in hindsight of how fortunate the outcome. A greater understanding and empathy for those who face natural disaster. We’ve been there now, did that.
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.