People across the Cariboo-Chilcotin region experienced the 2017 wildfires in so many different ways — as evacuees, as ranchers trying to save their properties, as firefighters right in the thick of it all and so much more.
In her new book, British Columbia in Flames: Stories From a Blazing Summer, Claudia Cornwall is sharing a wide range of these varying perspectives.
Cornwall’s family has a cabin on Sheridan Lake, near 100 Mile House, and they had to make the difficult choice to leave the cabin that summer. Cornwall, a long-time writer, was stricken not just by her own experience, but by the many moving stories she came across about the fires. She met with people from the communities of Sheridan Lake, Ashcroft, Cache Creek, 16 Mile House, Lac La Hache, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Hanceville-Riske Creek and Clinton and conducted more than 50 hours of interviews with ranchers, cottagers, Indigenous residents, RCMP officers, evacuees, store and resort owners, search and rescue volunteers, firefighters and local government officials.
“Presented in British Columbia in Flames are stories and photographs that illustrate the importance of community,” states a press release from Harbour Publishing. “During the 2017 wildfires, people looked after strangers who had no place to go. They shared information. They helped each other rescue and shelter animals. They kept stores open day and night to supply gas, food and comfort to evacuees. This memoir, at once journalistic and deeply personal, highlights the strength with which communities can and will come together to face a terrifying force of nature.”
Cornwall says the original impulse for writing this book was her own experience and realizing there were many people who were also very impacted by the 2017 fires.
“We have a cabin that’s been in my husband’s family for 60 years on Sheridan Lake, and it’s been a wonderful place for us,” she said. “It’s a modest little cabin, you know, nothing luxurious about it, but it’s been great, and my husband and I had our honeymoon there, and my son had his honeymoon there, and there are lots of memories attached to that. We had the doorway with all the kids’ heights. On July 7, we were actually at the cabin when all hell broke loose, and we decided to leave because the highways were closing all around us. I had so many feelings about this, and as we left the cabin and thought ‘am I ever going to see this place again?’”
When they were home in North Vancouver, Cornwall says she realized it wasn’t just her story.
“There were other people, a whole range of British Columbians, who had different experiences of the fires, and I kept following those stories,” she said. “So it was a combination of my own feelings about it and realizing other people had similar feelings but a different kind of situations. I was very impressed by how people pulled together, how they helped one another, and I thought I would write about that, our own experience and what happened with our cabin, and write about other people.
Cornwall says she really wanted to write about a full range of people, all of whom had different perspectives and experiences.
One of Cornwall’s favourite stories is from speaking to a rookie firefighter in the Alkali Lake area She was training to be a forester, working for Alkali Forest Management, and when the fires started, her boss told her there would be no regular work in the forest, but she could join one of the unit crews that were going to be firefighters.
“She’s a young woman who had done some basic firefighting training but had no real experience, so she had a very interesting experience through that and was in the thick of some of the worst of it,” said Cornwall.
Cornwall interviewed an incident commander on the Elephant Hill fire, Ashcroft Fire Chief Joshua White, Bonaparte Chief Ryan Day, 100 Mile House RCMP Detachment Commander Staff Sgt. Svend Nielsen and many others for her book.
One interesting story in the Quesnel area came from a woman she interviewed who had to evacuate from the Bowron Lake canoe circuit. The woman, her husband and their two children were about halfway through the circuit, and they had to canoe and portage out.
The strength of communities is one thing that really stood out for Cornwall.
“What really struck me was how the communities pulled together,” said Cornwall. “People had to be pretty flexible.”
Cornwall recalls one story where the owner of a small store in Little Fort provided sandwiches for free to drivers who were passing by the night they had to evacuate from Williams Lake because she realized people were probably hungry because they had left at supper time. In Clinton, a gas station owner lowered the price because he thought people who were evacuating had enough to worry about.
In Riske Creek, before they could get any help from the outside, the community really came together to protect their properties, using their logging and farming equipment.
Cornwall’s family cabin did survive. She says the Elephant Hill fire came within about a kilometre, but the wind suddenly shifted, and they were spared.
While sharing stories from various communities affected by the 2017 wildfires, Cornwall’s book also looks at some of the questions around what we can learn from this experience and what we can do better.
British Columbia in Flames: Stories From a Blazing Summer is being published by Harbour Publishing and will be available at bookstores and online as of April 25.