Larry Rode was finishing his shift as morning announcer for Country 840 in 100 Mile House when he saw a small plume of smoke curling up across the valley from his view through the window.
He thought nothing of it and continued his day as normal, heading home for a nap.
A few days later Rode would be living and broadcasting 20 hours a day from the same studio, ducking down whenever RCMP drove by the window because he wasn’t sure he was allowed to be there.
“When I was at home I thought ‘eh that’s nothing, they’ll have that quelled in no time.’
[I] went to have a nap, woke up at about 3 o’clock, absolutely amazed when I looked out the kitchen window.”
Rode wasn’t the only one who didn’t think much of the small plume of smoke. Others in the area simply assumed it was just the normal exhaust coming from the mill.
Ed Monical was moving his yearlings when he looked over the hill.
“[We saw] a plume of smoke and kinda thought, because normally the strand board plant smokes every now and then, ‘geez that’s kinda odd that the strand board plant is smoking that much;’ not really thinking it wasn’t quite in the right area.”
They moved the yearlings and kept watching the smoke getting bigger and bigger.
“Finally, we heard the fire sirens going off, which happens once in a while that the strand board plant would get too hot and they would bring the fire department in and then we said ‘oh yeah, the strand board plant is on fire again.’”
100 Mile Fire Rescue Chief
For 100 Mile House Fire Rescue Chief Roger Hollander, it was quite a different story.
He was the first emergency personnel on scene at the fire after the dispatcher called in a fire at the edge of their fire-district.
“We immediately requested air support. Not only was it a large fire but it was also very close in proximity to both mills,” says Hollander.
The only access to the fire was over an extremely bumpy road off of the Gustafsen Forest Service Road after which the fire would come to be named. The smaller road gave way to a small clearing where the ground was littered with bullet casings, cigarette packs and other garbage.
“What was different about this was certainly the size of fire upon arrival. So, noticing that plume of smoke we knew we were in for a large fire on the way there.”
The trees at the edge of the clearing were consumed by quickly expanding flames and smoke.
“There was a bit of a hillside that was on fire, a good couple of hectares … Trees were candling, lots of smoke around it and tough terrain,” says Hollander.
Even though he wasn’t sure if it was in their jurisdiction, they started suppressing the fire close by while waiting for BC Wildfire and mutual aid, as their resources could only handle so much, he says.
Like many in 100 Mile House, Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett was in her office when she heard the fire sirens and went outside to look.
“It was so dry and anytime there’s a siren around here, especially in the conditions, we all look and of course we saw the smoke up there. Automatically, I went down to the district office to see what was happening because, of course, where the fire was, was our economic engine for the South Cariboo being our industrial area.”
Before long, a water bomber, fire crews and a helicopter from BC Wildfire Service were on route as well as support from the Lone Butte and 108 Mile Volunteer Fire Departments.
Despite the large response, by 6:05 p.m., the fire had reached 380 hectares, and the first evacuation order came through for specific properties in the Tatton Station Road area.
The plumes of smoke kept getting bigger and bigger, says Monical. “That night was a little unnerving.”
A similar situation would soon be faced by those living south near Ashcroft, when a new fire was reported to the BC Wildfire Service around 10 p.m on July 7.
|Marianne and Don Rumball
Boston Flats managers
The next morning, it wasn’t long before the Elephant Hill fire, then known as the Ashcroft Reserve fire, would be rushing through dry grass and sagebrush, looking equally menacing. Marianne and Don Rumball watched it approach from the Boston Flats Trailer Park, where they had taken over as managers in May.
“We had been planning to go into Kamloops that morning, but we were at home, putting a new desk in the office,” says Marianne Rumball. “I’m glad we didn’t go.”
They were alarmed when they first noticed the smoke.
“Wow, there must be a really big fire somewhere,” Don said, according to Marianne. “We got in the gator [utility vehicle] and went up to the top of the hill to check it out. We went up again about a half-hour later, and it was very alarming. The smoke was a different colour.”
She passes over her phone, where she has videos of the event. The first one, taken at noon, shows white smoke far off to the south, but still plenty of blue sky. The second one, taken 30 minutes later, shows an angry cloud of dense black smoke obscuring most of the sky, and much closer to the park than it had been.
“We went back down and started contacting people via a telephone tree and we got in the gator and drove around telling people to be aware, start thinking about what they would take if they were evacuated,” says Marianne.
She and Don went back up the hill at 1 p.m. and saw that fire was coming towards them at a faster pace. When they went back down to the park, they started telling people to go.
Two police officers arrived and started going door-to-door. One officer was on the phone, trying to find out where people should go to. “They were caught off guard as well,” says Marianne. “It happened so quickly.
“When he got off the phone, the officer said to the other one ‘Don’t get yourself trapped.’ And I felt such a stillness then, because I realized what the situation was.”
She and Don tried to make sure everyone was accounted for; a task made more difficult by the fact that some people were at work or on holiday or had left the park already on other business.
|The Elephant Hill fire as seen on July 7. Matti J Lagerbom photo.|
“There were 72 people living in the park, and we pounded on doors, hollered, went in,” says Don. “But people have their daily routines and lives, and we didn’t know where some people were.”
“Thank goodness we were as busy as we were,” adds Marianne. “It kept us occupied.”
They were the last ones out, and at 2:22 p.m. that afternoon watched as the fire consumed some rose bushes at the south end of the park.
“At that point, it wasn’t at the trailers,” says Marianne. “It was mesmerizing. We couldn’t look away.”
They watched as vehicles and structures caught fire, until it became so smoky they could not see their trailer. “It was surreal, standing there watching.”
A fixed-wing craft with retardant made a pass over the park just as the fire started into it. “That killed the flames in the park, killed the fire,” says Don. “People started cheering, because we thought it was done. There were three bombers, and I thought that if the other two came over they’d save the park.”
Instead, they watched as the other two bombers dropped their loads on the west side of Highway 1 closer to Cache Creek, then had to go back to Kamloops to refill. By the time they got back, it was too late.
“I was shocked and stunned when I saw them putting retardant on the hillside,” says Marianne. “I thought ‘They’re abandoning us.’ But I realize now they had bigger fish to fry than Boston Flats. They did the best they could, but their resources were spread so thin. They had to protect Cache Creek. Are they going to concentrate on a town, or on one small community? We had no idea how big it [the fire] would get.”
Marianne took a last picture of the trailer park, half of it already consumed by flames, before they left around 3 p.m. “That was when I realized we didn’t have a home to go back to,” says Don.
The morning of that same day, back near 108 Mile Ranch, Monical saw that the bombers were also attacking the Gustafsen fire and decided to keep doing his regular work. That would soon change.
“I went haying that day, up by Lac la Hache, kept watching the smoke and it kept getting bigger and bigger. I came home in the middle of the day to start preparing the place for the fire.”
Along with his sons, Monical started by putting a fire line around the house, he says.
He didn’t bother trying to put a guard around his land.
“The land is too big to do that with the equipment that we had. We removed the rest of the remaining stock off the property with some friends and we sat and waited. Then, here it came.”
Earlier that day, at 8:30 a.m., they and all of the 108, 105 and 103 Mile area to the east of Highway 97 had been put on alert.
Just before noon, a full-scale evacuation of the area was ordered.
By 2:54 p.m. the south side of Lac la Hache was placed on evacuation order and at 4:45 p.m. the 103 Mile area west of Highway 97 was ordered to evacuate.
Further south, while Ashcroft escaped the flames, the Elephant Hill fire continued to sweep north towards Cache Creek.
On the ranch, the Monicals went to help their neighbours evacuate their livestock and their lives, as the roads were packed with people leaving.
But, on property the family had owned for generations, it was a different story for themselves.
“We’re not leaving. We can’t leave. We’ve got too much at stake.”
Smoke fills the air in Cache Creek as roads close and people prepare to leave. Jennifer Vance photo.
When Don and Marianne Rumball evacuated from their home at the Boston Flats Trailor Park on July 7, it was around 3 p.m.
They were told to go to Cache Creek Community Hall.
There was some confusion as people signed in and then left, says Marianne.
At the same time, as a precautionary measure, staff at the Ashcroft Hospital evacuated all the residents from the residential care-home Jackson House at the hospital, as well as all assisted-living residents and two other vulnerable residents at Thompson View Manor and Lodge.
As patients were evacuating to facilities in Merritt, the fire—estimated then at some 700 hectares —headed toward Cache Creek taking two paths.
The possibility of it encircling the village was imminent.
The approaching fire left officials with little choice. At 4:15 p.m. on July 7, Mayor John Ranta, also chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, ordered the evacuation of Cache Creek.
“Because of the potential danger to life and health, the Village of Cache Creek has ordered everyone within the Village of Cache Creek to evacuate,” the official release said.
|Jennifer Vance photo.|
At the temporary evacuation centre, the news reached the Rumballs that the village was evacuating.
“I heard that two people hadn’t got out of the park. Then I heard there was a fatality and I almost collapsed,” says Marianne.
They were able to confirm that everyone had made it out safely. “I’m very thankful and grateful that no one was lost.”
Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Chief Tom Moe was at the Chasm Mill when he found out the Elephant Hill wildfire was coming for Cache Creek. He made it back into town at 3:45 p.m. just before the evacuation was called.
“‘Chaos’ would be a mild word for it,” he said of the experience.
While residents prepared to evacuate, Moe raced towards Ashcroft to communicate with the fire department there, and then headed towards Boston Flats to meet another firetruck there.
“I stopped and they said, ‘We can’t get down there; it’s gone. There’s nothing we can do.”
By the time he got back to the hall, firefighters and police officers were going door-to-door, asking residents to leave.
Cache Creek resident Steve Jansen was close enough to the wildfire that red fire retardant was plastered along the bottom of his truck as he drove out of the village.
“We were one of the last ones out of there.”
He added that as Cache Creek and Ashcroft have done in previous tragedies—including the floods this past spring and in 2015—community members were banding together.
“We banded together for the floods, and everything else,” he said.
Still, while many were prepared to go, some only had the chance to grab what they could before heading out the door.
Looking back, Marianne says that when Boston Flats is restored, “People will get sick of doing safety drills. I will be a pain in everyone’s butt about it. Things like ‘Where and what is a muster point? Do you have a go-bag packed?’ But we think it won’t happen to us. I’ve known about go-bags for years but didn’t have one ready. I didn’t even grab my purse.”
Shane Gunn, a Search and Rescue member, just minutes before evacuating 100 Mile House. Neil Mason photo.
Two days later, 100 Mile House would be facing a similar situation.
At 8 p.m. Mayor Mitch Campsall told the 100 Mile Free Press, in response to rumours, that the district was not planning to evacuate.
“The day we were preparing, we were ready for it if we had to do it,” he says, but at the time, “we had no intention of evacuating.”
Only 45 minutes later the situation would be very different.
“It was breathtaking. It took my breath away. It was like getting a kick to the stomach,” he says.
100 Mile House Mayor
Local officials were in the middle of a nightly press call when BC Forestry came running through the door, as Campsall describes it.
“They were moving very fast.”
Campsall says he didn’t have much of a choice.
The Gustafsen fire had breached the southeastern flank of the fire, near 103 Mile and was quickly approaching the community of 1,886.
“They literally expected that fire to come over and then come into the community. They did not expect to have it stopped,” says Campsall.
In the Emergency Operations Centre set up by the district, Campsall was surrounded by the fire chief, two district councillors and his CAO.
“It was pretty shocking to take a look at that document and say you’ve got to sign it.
“I was prepared to sign it. Did I want to sign it? No. I did not,” he says.
“It was a hard decision to make but you knew you had to do it. There was no question of doing it or not doing it.”
Signing the paper sparked a wave of movement through the town, which until that point had been tense with unease. South Cariboo Search and Rescue mobilized, knocking on doors to spread the word.
Radio announcer Larry Rode was on his porch with his wife finishing up dinner and watching the glow of the fire.
“I said to my wife ‘This is not looking good.’ A few moments later, Search and Rescue knocked on my door.”
Rode and his wife grabbed their things and by 9:30 were on the road – but they weren’t headed out of town.
“We came to the radio station and right away I went on air and started broadcasting the difficulties at the time: the evacuation order, where people should go, routes of exit, things like that.”
100 Milers were being told to take Highway 24 east to Little Fort, where they were then asked to continue north on an additional five-hour drive to Prince George.
Roads were closed north of town at the 103 where the fire was approaching, but also to the south where Cache Creek had evacuated. Fires near Little Fort made the evacuation even more pressing to ensure the community had a safe route out.
Rode says he didn’t have a second thought about staying in town.
“It was a choice of get the info out, or I go somewhere else.”
Rode would stay through the evacuation to make sure people knew what was going on, but that night in particular he made sure to be on the air.
He broadcast the route everyone needed to take; where they had to be; reminders of what people needed to take; how to prepare their homes once they left; and, for people still in the area, how to prepare themselves so they weren’t caught off guard.
“Everybody is warned. My wife and I ourselves, we were warned, we had a few things tucked away here and there but when it happened, you know, you’re ready but you’re not ready.”
Larry Rode – Morning announcer
From the point when Campsall signed the evacuation order at 8:47 p.m., it took 45 minutes to knock on every door in the district, he says.
“Forty-five minutes, the whole town had been notified that they had to evacuate immediately. Within an hour the town was evacuated,” he says.
“How do you evacuate a whole town this size in roughly an hour – there were some stragglers, there were a few stragglers here and there but within an hour I would say 99 per cent of the people were out of town and that’s just incredible.”
Campsall still gets emotional when talking about the decision to evacuate.
“It’s even hard to think about. It’s never happened in our community before. We’ve never had to evacuate. We really believed – I did – that the community my people were leaving, [they] were not going to be coming back to.”
Evacuees line up outside an evacuee centre in Kamloops. Kevin MacDonald photo.
After evacuating to Cache Creek from the Boston Flats Trailer Park, Don and Marianne Rumball continued with the rest of the evacuating village towards Kamloops, where they would access Emergency Social Services.
Don says they have to hand it to Emergency Services BC. “By the time we got to the Emergency Operations Centre in Kamloops around 5:30 p.m. they were already well set up with just three hours’ notice. They had food, water, fresh fruit, and Fur Paws was set up to provide for animals.”
Normally, Emergency Social Services (ESS) is designed to help British Columbians in the first 72 hours of an emergency: fire, flood or earthquake, when people are forced from their homes. Usually run by volunteers, ESS can provide food, lodging, clothing, emotional support and information.
During wildfires, ESS centres were sometimes manned around the clock, and volunteers handed out vouchers for evacuees escaping the flames, providing group lodging in arenas or churches.
“We were really well looked after,” says Marianne. “There was a tremendous outpouring of help.”
In normal situations, often the Canadian Red Cross will step in after the first 72 hours, to provide continuing support to those in need.
During the wildfires, the two worked in tandem.
Alongside other assistance, the Red Cross distributed provincial funds of $600 per evacuated household.
Long lineups and waits on the phone plagued the system during the first days of evacuations until the Red Cross got their online system up and running.
Volunteers such as 100 Mile’s ESS director Liz Jones spent countless hours in places like the South Cariboo, Kamloops and Prince George – even as far as Cloverdale and Vancouver Island – processing and providing for evacuees and sometimes travelling so they could meet evacuees where there was a need.
100 Mile Mayor Mitch Campsall
Many businesses also contributed; stores in cities where people were evacuated offered discounts.
In Lone Butte, Penny Dixon, an evacuee from the 103, found herself unexpectedly accommodated.
She had been sleeping in a truck with her dogs in the parking lot of the Iron Horse Pub.
After a TV crew interview, she says she got an offer from Ed and Denise of Cariboo RV.
“They said, ‘We’ve got a trailer – it’s not great but you are more than welcome.’ So I went and they had it all set up with water and power so I could have a shower, and a great yard for my dogs to run in and they just spoiled me rotten and fed me every day,” she says.
|Penny Dixon and her dogs Teaka and Maisy stand in front of the truck they slept in until they were offered an RV. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.|
“It was incredible. They don’t know me and I don’t know them,” she says. “It sounds like it is not even true; they were that wonderful.”
With towns and areas evacuated along Highway 97 from Cache
Creek to just south of Quesnel, many caught in between evacuation orders, but not evacuated themselves found themselves struggling without access to the centres that provide daily necessities.
Ashcroft residents were left without power or much access to the rest of the world as the Elephant Hill fire raged to the north.
The Village of Ashcroft issued an evacuation alert notice in the early afternoon of July 7, but was hampered in its efforts to communicate this to residents because of the loss of all power at around 1:30 p.m. Phone lines were also down, and cell service was only available at higher elevations.
Highway closures along Highway 1 and Highway 97C left Ashcroft isolated.
Without power, residents couldn’t refuel at gas stations, water could only be used for the prevention and control of fire and for personal health and safety, as no new water could be pumped out of the river.
One resident with a generator went around town offering its use to those who needed power and up on the Mesa, Ken Gilpin used his generator to power a free cell phone charging station.
Misinformation was rife, such as rumours on Sunday, July 9 suggesting that Cache Creek was under imminent threat and subject to looting, neither of which was true. Several major news outlets—including Global BC News, the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and Radio CHNL in Kamloops—reported that Ashcroft residents had all been evacuated. When word of this spread, many people tried to make contact with Ashcroft family and friends, and then began to worry when they could not get through by phone.
Facebook was both a boon and a burden to those trying to pass information along to those who were evacuated and those on alert, says Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett.
In the South Cariboo, she set up information sessions so residents and evacuees who hadn’t travelled far could keep abreast of the situation.
“I don’t know where these rumours come from but they certainly have caused a lot of problems for everyone, a lot of fear,” she says. “When the information isn’t correct, man does it cause problems.”
While many evacuees travelled on to Prince George and Kamloops, others stayed in the area.
“I spent a lot of my time out east of town in the Lone Butte area, the Interlakes area, talking to people reassuring them that everything would be fine, holding public meetings, just doing what you could do.”
She says putting accurate information out, in a face-to-face setting was essential.
“The info meetings have really helped and people can ask questions. Your computer doesn’t talk back to you and sometimes they just need that feeling of security.”
“The best thing you can do is talk to people, help them feel comfortable and tell them the truth.”
Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett
In the meantime, evacuees and those stranded alike set up a series of foodbanks, as food poured in from places like Fort McMurray.
Save-On-Foods sent a semi-trailer of food and supplies to Ashcroft, and the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC had a convoy of vehicles with food and supplies come to Ashcroft on July 15.
Jil Freeman, alongside fellow volunteers, set up at the centre with supplies available for free to evacuees or anyone in need in the Interlakes Community Hall.
“I saw over Facebook that there was a need for supplies in the area, from not only evacuees but also local residents because of the supplies that were diminishing at the store and also because there’s a need for people who aren’t working, so they don’t have the means to be going and spending money on groceries right now,” she said.
As food from the Kamloops Food Bank and other organizations filtered up Highway 24, Freeman organized the delivery to food banks in Lone Butte and 70 Mile.
Before the end of the fires, the chain would spread from Interlakes, to Forest Grove, on to Lac la Hache, where the community held daily soup kitchens and dinners, and then into Chilcotin.
For many, the fires had a silver lining. Individuals and communities banded together to help everyone get through it.
“My philosophy is if you can’t help, get out of the way and everyone was so awesome,” says Barnett.
Ashcroft volunteer firefighters at the fire hall on July 8. Barbara Roden photo.
In the Fire
As fires expanded, and a state of emergency across the province was declared, resources mobilized for the fight.
Ashcroft Volunteer Fire Department chief Josh White says that the Elephant Hill fire was spotted south of Ashcroft in the late evening of Thursday, July 6, and he called it in. Members of the BC Wildfire Service arrived shortly after midnight and White guided them down to the site in his SUV in 4-wheel drive.
“It’s a rough road, and our firetrucks are not 4-wheel drive.”
White says it was a stationary fire that was not moving much at that time. Two attack teams from forestry were at the site, which White left around 1:15 a.m.
“Next morning there wasn’t a lick of smoke, and I thought ‘Good job, forestry, knocking that down.’”
However, the fire caught hold in the late morning of July 7, fanned by sudden fierce winds, and the AVFD got a call shortly after 11:30 a.m. White describes what it was like when they arrived on the reserve.
“Trying to set up fire hoses with a fire that was moving so fast was impossible. We stopped near Black Canyon Road and managed to get the caps off the hydrant; then I saw flames licking at the back tires of Rescue 1 and said ‘this is not a good place to be.’ We retreated to the mid-point of the reserve and managed to get hooked up to a hydrant before we had to retreat to the location of the Band office.”
White used the PA system to warn residents to evacuate, and split his crew into two divisions.
“We began removing the fuel load—wood piles and other things stacked alongside houses—from around two residences. Those structures are still standing. But all the time we had on the reserve was to action those two properties. We had to stay out of forestry’s way [when they came in with retardant].” White adds that the Village of Ashcroft and the Ashcroft Ranch sent two pieces of equipment and operators each, to try to fight the blaze.
Then White received a call that structures at Bradner Farms, on the west side of Elephant Mountain, were catching fire. He dispatched Engine 3, with five crew members aboard, to the site, only to receive a call from Kamloops Fire Dispatch a few minutes later.
“They said someone from the farm had called to say that refrigeration units and cooling tanks were exploding, that there were structure fires, the barn was fully engulfed, and not to send firefighters in.” However, not long before receiving that call, the repeater that transmits signals and allows the fire crews to stay in touch with each other failed, leaving White with no practical means of telling his crew to turn back.
“We lost the repeater at 13:34, and at 13:36. I heard about the electric explosions at Bradner.” White explains that while the firefighters still had radios that could communicate with each other, that communication was limited by distance and geography.
“It was a nightmare scenario,” he says. The firefighters on the reserve loaded into a vehicle and bombed down Highway 1 to try to catch up with Engine 3.
“It was like driving through hell. There was thick smoke, and fire at the side of the highway, and we nearly collided with an abandoned chip trailer.” When they cleared the smoke, they could see Engine 3 backing out of the road into Bradner.
“Someone coming out had given a warning, and Captain Steve Aie made the wise decision not to go in.
“It was kind of emotional to see that truck and those people safe,” White continues. “I care about them like my family. And I told everyone to go back to Ashcroft; that was now our priority.”
White says there was no time, and no resources, to go down to Boston Flats to fight the fire, and that the lack of communication also played a part. He drove down to the trailer park some 10 minutes or so before fire engulfed it, and used the PA system to warn everyone out, but says he did not see anyone.
“There was nothing we could do. There was a wall of fire coming down Elephant Mountain, and it was a very dangerous place to be, with no hydrants.”
On his way back from Boston Flats, Cache Creek Fire Chief Tom Moe had noticed fire on the Bonaparte Reserve on his way back from Ashcroft, and now could see fire approaching Cache Creek down Rattlesnake Hill on both sides of the highway. He got a call that the Bonaparte Reserve was in danger, so sent one of the trucks and three crew members there.
Aircraft had started dropping retardant on the hills around Cache Creek at that point. The fire reached as far as the top of the hill across Highway 1 near the fire hall, and the RCMP warned that the firefighters would have to evacuate.
“I said, ‘Not until it’s at the front door.’”
|A helicopter lifts water from a pool in Ashcroft. Mike Mastin photo.|
As more reports of the fire’s spread came in, Moe made decisions on where to send the resources.
On one property, outbuildings, trees and vehicles were lost, while firefighters managed to sprinkle the house and save it.
It had also caught hold of a pile of bark mulch at the public works yard, and was burning just 20 feet from the Village’s wastewater treatment plant. Unit 1, which carries 125 gallons of water, was able to keep the wood pile fire under control until a Cache Creek engine could get there, while the Ashcroft tender dealt with the bark mulch fire.
The firefighters also kept a fire in a woodpile at the Sage and Sands trailer park controlled.
“I never thought we would lose Sage and Sands,” Moe says. “I was very optimistic and have faith in my guys.”
Still, crews lost ground elsewhere. The old Cache Creek engine attended a house fire towards the Campbell Hill airport.
“The house was on fire when we got there, and there was nothing we could do. There’s only one way out of there, so we turned around.”
White says conditions were challenging on the night of July 7.
“I drove to Cache Creek that evening, where I saw Cache Creek Fire Chief Tom Moe and offered assistance to save Sage and Sands trailer park,” says White. “He said yes, and we sent the tender and an engine.
“Those Cache Creek firefighters saved their community,” he continues. “Forestry was there as well, and the three [agencies] worked together, but the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department was at the center of it.”
“We actioned hotspots over the next few days, and would go to Cache Creek to meet with them,” says White. “We came up with a defensive plan to protect Cache Creek.” White was stationed in Cache Creek for a few days, and would regularly check in at the fire hall in Ashcroft and update firefighters and those staffing the information centre.
To the north, firefighters were fighting similar battles.
Flames seen from Tatton Station Road on July 6
On July 6, when houses were evacuated along Tatton Station Road due to the Gustafsen fire, the 108 Mile Ranch Fire Department set up sprinkler protection units on three houses there, says Fire Chief Marcelle Ried.
“We deployed our sprinkler trailer right away and set up the three houses up there with sprinkler protection under the assumption that the fire was gonna start going that way. The fire did crest the hill and we lost a little shed from one of the homes that we did sprinkler protection on. We were pretty much out there all night waiting.”
Due to the intensity and closeness of the fire they were forced to retreat to the fire hall, but went back once the fire turned.
“Unfortunately, that first night… we lost several structures out there already.”
The next day, when evacuations in the 108 took place, he says they expected the fire to come straight for the community.
“We were told that the fire’s direction was towards the 108 so we started setting up sprinkler protection on Block Drive.”
From his house on Tatton Station Road, Ed Monical can see Block Drive.
Despite the full evacuation order that morning, he and his family stayed and did their own preparations, fire-smarting the house and moving the remaining stock off the property.
Then the fire arrived.
“Here it came and it was pretty darn scary. Choppers did a fabulous job trying to protect the houses: my house and the neighbouring houses behind us,” says Monical.
“It was a real bad fire and it came through there and undoubtedly whatever was in front of it would not survive. Luckily we were on the edge of it. Then the wind changed and it came straight for us and that was really scary.”
He was on the roof hosing it down and had a generator for when the power went off, he says.
“The wind blew hard. It just about could blow you off the house. I had to be careful.”
Everyone was watching for embers that could start fires hundreds of meters ahead of the flames. His sons worked near the barn, which had a sprinkler on it, he says.
Hotspots around the house started small grass fires which were also monitored by a team of neighbours and other family.
“When the big fire went through behind us we quickly went up to our neighbour’s house,” says Monical.
“We worked on getting him safe; his place safe. We had extra generators. Ran up there with the tractor and cleaned out the fallen trees in his driveway with the tractors… Uncles and neighbours went in there and started bucketing to put the fire out to save his house which we did end up doing. He lost a little shed there.”
The fire stopped a couple 100 feet short of yet another neighbour’s house and so they started talking about what to do next, says Monical.
“We decided we needed to put our own little line in from Lily Pad Lake Road to the railway tracks. I said go get your excavator and get at it.”
They had some extra tanks that they threw in the back of a pickup and a niece brought a pump, he says, which they then all brought to the line.
“As the fire came to our line we put it out. We hammered that line through to the railway tracks and had other help show up the following day. We had four trucks with tanks in the back … With that big of a crew we did a remarkable job and the choppers – the choppers were flying over us, watching us constantly. When we got close to a hotspot they would bucket a couple of buckets on in and we’d get there and finish hosing it down.”
Behind their line was old growth fir, timberland with plenty of fuel that stretched to close to the 108, he says.
“It could have very easily gotten into that and then it would be a raging inferno again. With a little wind behind it it could have very easily carried on into the 108.”
That evening two houses on Block Drive burned down.
|A chimney is all that was left of one of the houses that burned on Block Drive. CRD photo.|
While the 108 Volunteer Fire Department attended them, eventually there was nothing they could do, says Ried.
“We had crews down there. They were trying to hold it back and they had to pull out.”
“I went down there myself … when we came to the homes there, it was devastating. I guess that first initial thought was ‘oh my god, we’re gonna lose a portion of the 108.’ The homes were already well under flame but yet the house beside it, there was flames around it but not burning and stuff. So we’d started putting more sprinklers on the opposite side of the road to protect those homes and that was basically our plan to keep working our way back if we had to. Fortunately, the winds shifted for us and the fire kinda just succumbed to itself.”
While the fire burned through four or five treed areas near the 108, fire crews managed to get a handle on it, says Ried, emphasizing that the change in winds really played a big factor.
“We definitely would have started losing a lot more homes. It was just Mother Nature playing tricks on us.”
For the group of ranchers, the next day was tough. Because of roadblocks designed to keep people out of the evacuated areas, many of them couldn’t get back in to help with the unofficial fire suppression efforts, says Monical.
“That was the worst part – worrying about saving neighbours houses and everything like that – to deal with the police and the conservations officers harassing us up here.
“That was the worst. That was just about worse than the fires. The stress of having them ding-a-lings come around here and threaten to arrest us all because we were leaving our private property to go help a neighbour’s property.”
Officially, residents were allowed to stay in evacuated areas, provided they didn’t leave their private property.
“So we only had one truck with one tank and we couldn’t hold the line that day.”
Pausing to compose himself, Monical is emotional during the retelling of the story.
“Fire kept jumping our line. Kept calling for help and nobody could get into us. So we did what we could do. That evening we were losing ground.”
They decided they would have to cut a new line the next morning.
“So we did. At four in the morning, we were up there. Hammered in a new line. By that time, Casey [one of the neighbours] had an old truck up there that wasn’t running very good. He got it running. Threw another tank on because we couldn’t get any of our friends in. They tried their damnedest. They couldn’t get through the roadblocks.”
A couple of them got arrested trying, says Monical.
“[We] tried to leave the forestry alone. They’re busy enough trying to protect the town. All we needed was our friends to help.”
Ed Monical – Rancher
According to CRD Chair Al Richmond “people could stay where they are. They are not ordered out. They are told they should be out. What we can’t do is approve someone staying in, then we become liable for them.”
Working with those who had managed to stay, the ranchers had more success with the second line, says Monical.
“We held the line. We got it under control. Seven days before wildfire guys finally got to us and they took over the line.”
At that point, he says the ranchers “got out of the way and left them alone.”
|The BC Wildfire Service conducted a controlled burn on July 13 to protect 100 Mile House and the mills. Jeannie Owen photo.|
Several days earlier, on Sunday, July 9, the day 100 Mile House evacuated, the fire had moved in a direction away from the 108, says Ried.
“They told us it’s gonna break the highway. It’s gonna jump the highway. We took 12 fire trucks up there. When I came up to the crest of the hill it was like holy smokes. It was bad.
“You couldn’t see nothing. You could see the flames on the west side, but then the rest was just smoke. The highway was like a scene in a bad movie; ash was flying across the highway, there was RCMP, it was just chaos.”
Just across the highway from the flames was the community of 103 Mile.
MLA Donna Barnett says you’d have to see it to believe it.
“I remember coming back from delivering something to the 108. On the fire – they had fire hose all along Highway 97 on both sides from the Exeter Road right to the 103, and there was 50 firefighters fighting the fire on the side of the road.
“If you didn’t see it happen, you would say why did they evacuate us, it wasn’t that bad.
“Believe you me, it is fortunate they left because that fire could have just accelerated.”
Forestry and the firefighters came up with a strategy to back burn from the highway back into the fire, says Ried.
“We did that for two kilometres and held the fire back. A few embers got across the highway but we were watching and making sure that there was no fire. We went in there right away and put those hotspots out.”
108 Fire Chief Marcelle Ried
“Basically going from 101 west was an inferno and 103 east, we managed to keep that from catching on fire.”
Towards 100 Mile House, of major concern were the two mills, the economic drivers of the community.
“We started a plan to protect what we called our priority number one after, of course, people being safe but as far as what property we were going protect and those were the mills,” says 100 Mile Fire Rescue Chief Roger Hollander.
Part of the strategy was a major back burn on the south side of the fire, which took place on July 13.
For many, it was one of the first signs of good news for the town.
“We had almost perfect weather conditions and winds for it,” said fire information officer Heather Rice at the time.
“It was just a good day and we’re hoping for a few more of those.”
100 Mile Mayor Mitch Campsall speaks at an information session in Kamloops with CRD Chair Al Richmond, TNRD Chair and Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta and a BC Wildfire representative. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.
As fires intensified, officials like 100 Mile Mayor Mitch Campsall, TNRD Chair and Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta and CRD Chair Al Richmond quickly became the focal point and spokespeople for what was happening behind the scenes.
On July 6, when it seemed like the Gustafsen fire was the only major fire burning in the Interior, things were looking, if not good, positive for 100 Mile House, says Campsall, as all resources were mobilizing to fight the rapidly moving wildfire.
On July 7, when 48 new fires started, many due to a lightning storm, a state of emergency was declared across the province. Resources, were, for a brief moment, looking thin.
“Things started to look really complicated. All the resources that we had, the regional district and what have you all of a sudden disappeared,” says Campsall.
“Friday night wasn’t a good night. We were sitting there, worried, thinking we are on our own now.”
On Saturday morning, what Campsall calls the ‘A Team’ arrived.
The BC Wildfire Service had sent an Incident Management Team to take control of the fire.
“All of a sudden we’ve got a command centre going and we have RCMP coming in and issues are starting to happen.”
Before long, the district office was running an Emergency Operations Centre.
The Ministry of Highways, Forestry, the local Forestry office, the RCMP, the local MLA, Chief Mike Archie of the Canim Lake Band and the Cariboo Regional District were all working together.
“We were up at 6 a.m. and sometimes going till 3 or 4 in the morning, just relooping that every day,” says Campsall.
The BC Wildfire Service was doing the same.
Kevin Skrepnek – Chief fire information officer
“It was pretty clear that we were dealing with a magnitude of situation that we hadn’t faced in B.C. for quite some time,” says chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.
“We did start to reallocate resources pretty swiftly in terms of bringing additional people and equipment into the Cariboo and Kamloops Fire Centres. Of course, that also kicked in the process of bringing support from out of province.”
By the end of the summer firefighters from across Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and for the first time ever, Mexico would make their way to the heart of the wildfires.
“A huge level of cooperation and a huge level of co-ordination has to go into [bringing] those resources in, briefing them so they understand what our situation is to make sure they are safe operating in B.C. as well, just given how challenging our terrain is in some of these areas and getting them up to speed and getting them deployed,” says Skrepnek.
|Officials held information meetings, like this one in the Interlakes, to keep residents in the know. Martina Dopf photo.|
Others were just helping out wherever they could be useful. MLA Donna Barnett, thanks to her 25 years in office between 100 Mile and the province, was able to get on the phone to get permits for food or gas trucks or smoothe out issues at roadblocks.
Sometimes she’d head to the United Way to find diapers for a young mother, other times she would pick up the firefighters’ uniforms on her way home and throw them in the wash.
“Well, they needed clean clothes and it was not a huge effort – and not everybody can say they got to wash the firemen’s shorts.”
For some, the tasks weren’t so simple.
108 Fire Chief Marcelle Ried did 300 triage sheets with the fire department of all the homes along the Walker Valley.
“Basically, triaging is looking at a home, and it’s kind of a sad thing to say, but determining whether it is saveable or not: seeing what kind of fuels are around the home; if there is lots of grass; if there is firewood leaning up against the home,” he says. “Planning to see what our plan of attack would be.”
The pressure on officials to make the best decisions was always there.
100 Mile Mayor Mitch Campsall
“I’ve been telling people it probably took 10 years off my life,” says Campsall.
“You’re not dealing with normal everyday situations; you are dealing with emergency situations and we don’t deal with that very often, thank goodness, because I tell you, no mayor wants to deal with what we had to deal with,” he says, adding the decision to evacuate was particularly hard.
“As a safety issue, dealing with almost 2,000 people, you gotta think you had to make that decision for their safety, but we’ve never done it before. The community has never been evacuated. I don’t even think we’ve ever been on alert ever,” he says.
Staff dealt with people wanting the evacuation order to be lifted, or businesses who were suffering due to a lack of customers.
Even lifting the alert was a stressful decision, as it would trigger the return of residential care patients evacuated in the early days of the fire, possibly causing additional stress in the move.
“The pressure is there, but you do it the right way or you don’t do it at all,” says Campsall.
Still, issues came up so fast, most had little time to rest in the midst of the crisis.
“You really haven’t had time to think to be honest with you. The only thing that you think about is please stop,” says Barnett.
A helicopter replaces hydro poles near Ashcroft on July 8. Christopher Roden photo.
As the Gustafsen fire began to die down and the Elephant Hill fire moved away from Ashcroft and Cache Creek, authorities in each community began the preparations to bring life back to normal.
In Ashcroft, despite the massive damage to infrastructure, dozens of BC Hydro workers, who had worked throughout July 7 and 8, managed to restore power one section at a time. Not long after that, the village was able to once again pump water and fill the reservoirs.
With water and an information station once again open on July 9, the village began the long road to recovery, while still isolated due to road closures in the area.
For communities that had been evacuated, the task of bringing people home was enormous.
The list of tasks to do for both communities included making sure health care and pharmacies were available, that there were places for residents to eat and buy food and that it was safe enough to come home.
“That was a huge task. Evacuating was simple compared to what we had to do.”
Safety was one of the biggest concerns, says Campsall. He didn’t want to have to see his community ordered out again.
100 Mile House reached out to officials in Fort McMurray for help with their re-entry plan.
Fort McMurray provided “recommendations, practices and key planning tools to help us start to focus our own efforts on re-entry,” says Joanne Doddridge, the district planner who co-ordinated the re-entry.
The District needed to plan everything such as how to allow vehicles back into the community and how to deal with rotten fridges once people were home.
“One of the big things that we’ve learned through this is that the challenges are going to be unique to every particular area,” says Jordan Redshaw, the communications manger for the recovery task force for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (the district that includes Fort McMurray).
“One of the biggest and most important things is that everyone has and experiences an event like this in a unique manner. There are no two stories that are ever going to be the same.”
Cache Creek was the first community to come home. The evacuation order was lifted at 3:30 p.m. on July 18.
Vehicles waited patiently at the check point to be allowed back into their homes.
Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Chief
“It was an “incredible feeling” to see people driving back into the community, says Cache Creek Fire Chief Tom Moe.
“We’ve been working hard for 12 days to make this happen. To see them coming home with smiles on their faces is making me tear up a little. Everybody’s happy to be home, and we’re happy to see them.”
Scars of the fire were visible in the community. Rattlesnake Hill was black from top to bottom, while patches of vivid red from the retardant stained the hillsides and the house perched high above Collins Road. Even the patch of hillside above the fire hall was scorched black, showing how close the flames came to evacuating even the firefighters themselves.
Moe spoke with the driver of a returning vehicle who gave him a hug before continuing down the road.
It was a similar scene in 100 Mile on July 22, shortly after Campsall and CRD Chair Al Richmond announced that evacuation orders across the South Cariboo would be lifted.
“What a day. That was the best day,” says Campsall.
He also greeted cars next to the firefighters as people drove into town.
When Penny Dixon drove down the hill into 100 Mile House on Saturday with her dogs Teaka and Maisy, she says tears were streaming down her face.
|100 Mile Fire Rescue Chief Roger Hollander welcomes returning evacuees to 100 Mile House. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.|
“I was shocked at myself. I’m not that fall-apart person and yet I just cried all the way home,” she says. “All the firemen are waving … it was one of those things that I wish I could have videoed, but you can’t drive, video and cry at the same time.”
Returning to her home in 103 Mile, Dixon would be greeted with some of the challenges residents would face in coming days: a house that smelled strongly of smoke and a fridge, where, due to a power outage, the food had spoiled.
“It’s just rank, everything has gone bad,” she says.
Her next step, after airing the house and putting the dogs in the back yard, would be to get rid of the fridge and cleaning the walls to clear the house of the smokey smell.
Residents across the South Cariboo would be doing the same, with fridge pick up programs and cleaning kits provided by the Red Cross.
Soon, she said, when able to do it without crying, she would also be back in Lone Butte to thank her hosts. But at the time, she was simply happy to be back.
“I’ll kiss the walls, I’ll kiss the floor. I just wanted to come home.”
“I know there was a lot of pressure about people coming [home] but we wanted to make sure when we did it, we did it right and we did it in a safe manner,” says 100 Mile Mayor Mitch Campsall.