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.
“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.