New book sparks memories of B.C.’s worst fire season

British Columbia in Flames provides intimate snapshots of a harrowing time

Claudia Cornwall has come out with a new book on the 2017 wildfires. British Columbia in Flames provides personal snapshots of the worst fire season in B.C.’s history. (Photo submitted)

Claudia Cornwall has come out with a new book on the 2017 wildfires. British Columbia in Flames provides personal snapshots of the worst fire season in B.C.’s history. (Photo submitted)

When British Columbia was burning in 2017, the community came together in “an astonishing crescendo of goodwill,” according to author Claudia Cornwall.

That’s the story she conveys in her new book, British Columbia In Flames: Stories from a Blazing Summer. Through 50 interviews with those in the thick of the wildfires – whether to battle the flames in their communities, save animals or protect their homes, Cornwalls weaves together an evocative narrative of those harrowing days while highlighting the sense of community.

“To see what it takes to go through a crisis and how people pull together and how important community is to get through something,” Cornwall said. “People did support each other a lot.”

Personal and riveting snapshots are drawn out in each chapter, which focuses on a specific community – Ashcroft, Cache Creek, 16 Mile, 100 Mile, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Hanceville-Riske Creek, Clinton, Pressy Lake-70 Mile-Green Lake and Sheridan Lake – taking readers unnervingly back to that summer three years ago.

It starts with Cornwall’s own experience at Sheridan Lake where she flees the cabin that has been in her husband’s family for 60 years. As the weeks drag on, and the fire continues its rampage throughout the region, she wonders if she will ever see it again.

READ MORE: Smoky skies expected through weekend in B.C. as 29 large wildfires burn across U.S. border

“As the fire got closer we watched it with a lot of trepidation,” said Cornwall, who lives in North Vancouver. “We never thought it would be on our doorstep. I felt a lot of emotion.”

That narrative is clean, bright and informative, sharing the stories of those at the heart of the worst fire season in B.C.’s history. It highlights people like Barb Woodburn at 16 Mile, who took in strangers’ horses and then relied on her neighbours’ ingenuity to save her ranch with trucks and 250-gallon tanks. 100 Mile RCMP Staff-Sgt. Svend Nielsen slept under his desk and lived in his camouflage shorts and Green Bay Packers T-shirt. Bonaparte First Nations Chief Ryan Day stayed with his band members to fight the fire.

“I didn’t want to just write about me because I knew a lot of people had more dramatic stories than ours,” Cornwall said. “I’m full of admiration for the people I met.”

She was particularly inspired by Williams Lake’s Lana Shields, who gathered more than 300 horses who behaved “as if they knew they were going to be helped.” She found it interesting that it took eight or nine hours for 10,000 vehicles to leave Williams Lake when the city was evacuated but there were no incidents of road rage. Cornwall was also “quite taken” by Samantha Smolen, a rookie firefighter on the Alkali Lake unit crew, which took on spark duty on Slater Mountain and was told by their boss that “you guys saved Williams Lake.”

“This is an important story to tell, part of the history of British Columbia,” Cornwall said. “We came through it pretty well.”

Cornwall also draws out the anxiety felt by those stuck in the middle of the fire, such as Teri-Lyn and Kenny Doherty at Maiden Creek or Andra and Rick Holzpfels, frantically trying to get themselves and their children safely out of the Bowron Lakes. She also puts herself in the narrative, both during her interviews and earlier, when the fire was threatening her cabin.

“It was really roaring, going 40 clicks and it was candling,” she said of the fire at Sheridan Lake. “At night the wind shifted and the lake was saved. We didn’t know if it would return or not.”

The book not only highlights what happened but reminds us that we aren’t out of the woods when it comes to wildfires. About half of wildfires are human-caused, including the 2017 Elephant Hill wildfire. The recent wildfires in the U.S. this past summer is a good example that it could happen again, Cornwall said.

“We need to look after our forests so hopefully some money trickles in to support our forests,” she said.

The Museum of the Cariboo-Chilcotin in Williams Lake is putting on an exhibit about the 2017 fires. In conjunction, it has asked Cornwall to host a Zoom meeting on Nov. 12 at 6 pm. where she will read from the book, present some photographs, and introduce a few special guests – people who were in the book, were impacted by the fires or helped to fight them and co-ordinate the rescue from Williams Lake.


newsroom@100milefreepress.net

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

100 Mile HouseCariboo Regional District

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A woman wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 uses walking sticks while walking up a hill, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Interior Health reports 83 more COVID-19 infections overnight

46 cases are now associated with a COVID-19 community cluster in Revelstoke

Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson (right) with his partner Shelley Wiese participated in an BC Liberals Caucus virtual oath ceremony Friday, Nov. 27. Doerkson was appointed opposition critic of rural development by interim leader Shirley Bond. (Photo submitted)
Cariboo Chilcotin MLA appointed rural development opposition critic

Newly-elected Lorne Doerkson said it will be an honour to work for all rural consituents

Yunesit’in Chief Lennon Solomon signs a memorandum of understanding with COS Insp. Len Butler. The five-year agreement was signed outside the Tsilhqot’in National Government in downtown Williams Lake on Nov. 30. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
Yunesit’in Government, Conservation Officer Service team up to address illegal moose hunting

Protection of moose a key focus of recently signed memorandum of understanding

A man wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Vancouver on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
212 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health over the weekend

A total of 490 cases remain active; 15 in hospital

Clinton fire hall, date unknown. Photo credit: Submitted
Clinton Volunteer Fire Department seeks funding for gear, equipment

More equipment needed after successful recruitment drive.

A tongue-in-cheek message about wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a sign outside a church near Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656

20 more people in hospital, active cases still rising

(Needpix.com)
Fraudsters projected to use pet scams to gouge over $3M from customers: BBB

The pandemic heavily contributed to the number of puppy scams

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Haley Callison. (Facebook photo)
Former B.C. pro hockey player frustrated with COVID-deniers after horrific bout with virus

Haleigh Callison hopes people will follow precautions and tone down the rhetoric

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A man stands in the window of an upper floor condo in Vancouver on March 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Change made to insurance for B.C. condo owners amid rising premiums

Council CEO Janet Sinclair says the change will mean less price volatility

The Walking Curriculum gets students outside and connecting with nature. (Amanda Peterson/Special to S.F. Examiner)
‘Walking Curriculum’ crafted by SFU professor surges in popularity

The outdoor curriculum encourages students to connect with the natural world

Most Read