A helicopter refills on fire retardant in Clinton during the evacuation. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.
The Start of Fire Season
For residents returning home after being evacuated, Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett had a harsh reality check.
“There is so much burning out there yet and we know fire season doesn’t start in the Cariboo Chilcotin – and I’m not [trying to] scare you – until August.”
For an area that had already seen three weeks of devastating wildfires the words were hardly reassuring.
While Cache Creek and the South Cariboo were happy to be back in their homes, other areas weren’t so lucky.
As the Elephant Hill fire advanced, communities in its path, like Hihium Lake, hadn’t been allowed back.
|July fire progression
Residents of Loon Lake had been forced to evacuate on July 14. By July 15, the Elephant Hill fire had engulfed the lake-side community, eventually destroying 40 residences and 32 other structures including the fire hall: the highest number of residences lost in the regional district outside of the Boston Flats area.
However, partial downgrades along the Highway 97 corridor, which included some properties that had been part of the Hihium Lake, Loon Lake and other orders, offered other residents some hope.
The BC Wildfire Service announced the Gustafsen fire was 100 per cent contained on July 24.
“It means that there is a minimum guard of 25 feet around the perimeter of the fire, but we’re pushing into 100 to 150 in areas,” said fire information officer Lynn Daina.
Three days later, Barnett would make her prophetic statement.
For nearly two weeks after devastating Loon Lake, the Elephant Hill fire had slowly been creeping closer and closer to the Bonaparte River.
In a last spike of good news, a 40-hectare fire near Jim Lake, which had started on July 26, changed to being held on July 28.
The next day, a whole new group of people went through what was becoming an unpleasantly familiar experience.
Lorne Smith and Cheryl Merriman had been watching the fire advance online and on the news since July 7 from their home at Pressy Lake, which they retired to in May.
“There were a lot of fires going out through B.C. and we were more fascinated with the fire – how fast it had moved and how big they were and how many there were around the province but we never really thought that that particular fire would reach our place the first week,” says Smith.
“We started thinking about it when it hit Loon Lake. We thought that’s not too far away from us, if it comes up over the hill, that’s not far between us and there so when it started coming that way, we started to really worry.”
When they were placed on evacuation alert on July 15 the two grabbed their paperwork and clothes, packed a trailer with their quads and moved up to Sheridan Lake.
Then, the fire seemed to slow.
“We came back down to the lake from Sheridan and for about three or four more days everything was looking good: clear blue skies, the wind had shifted, there was no smoke, no ash and then it just completely turned around and started heading our way,” says Smith.
On July 29, at 4:30 p.m., the Village of Clinton was ordered out.
|Smoke from the Elephant Hill wildfire near Clinton, which forced the evacuation of that community on July 29. Susan Swan photo.
“Folks in the area are being asked to evacuate to the south as there are very gusty and aggressive winds in the area. The wildfire has spotted across containment lines to the north of the Bonaparte River and is not immediately threatening the town of Clinton, but is in an area where we have recommended that the evacuation orders be changed in order to protect folks in the area,” said fire information officer Claire Allen.
Later that night, an evacuation order went out for properties farther north: South Green Lake, 70 Mile House and Pressy Lake.
At her home in 70 Mile, Rose Raphael woke up to a knock on the door at 4 a.m.
“I ran down in all my glory with my nightie and opened my door and said hello.”
A policeman was standing on the other side of the door.
“My house faces south and we could see the smoke,” she says. “It was the most awful colours, there was oranges and black oranges and you’re looking around and thinking, ‘Oh crap.’”
Raphael lives with her son, Ernest, and while the duo had been packed and ready to go for a week, the evacuation order still came as a surprise.
“I just stared at him like he was a mirage and if I blink my eyes enough me and Toto are gonna go to the Wizard of Oz. It goes through your head so fast and he was such a nice young man and he told me what he needed to tell me and I said ‘okay then’ and Ernest and I got dressed and ready to go.”
In the parking lot of the South Cariboo Recreation Centre in 100 Mile House several hours later Raphael joked about the evacuation, but it’s clear the experience was unsettling.
“It’s amazing how unnerving it is. You feel powerless.”
Smith and Merriman didn’t get the chance to grab any other belongings. They were spending the day at Sheridan Lake when the evacuation order went through.
Still, they felt confident. The day before Smith says he met a structural protection unit looking for areas to access water so they could set up protection on their homes.
“We felt pretty good about that.”
But the dreaded month of August, that Barnett had referred to earlier, had yet to begin.
It would start with a controlled burn going awry and spilling over the highway near the intersection of the Loon Lake turnoff and Highway 97.
Firefighters in a morning meeting. Max Winkelman photo.
After news broke of a controlled burn gone wrong on Aug. 1, outcry on social media was swift. Greg Nyman was one of the ranchers in the area affected by the spillover over Highway 97.
“It just went unbelievably wrong,” he said. “The wind was blowing hard out of the northeast, and they were trying to burn to the northeast. I don’t know what kind of magic they thought was going to happen.”
Nyman was quick to add that he does not blame the firefighters, saying at the time, “the front-line workers, they’re phenomenal, this is a management thing.”
“It’s part of the risk of doing controlled burns,” said fire information officer Heather Rice at the time. “Unfortunately, the winds again got a little bit circlish, they started to circle on them a little bit so that’s how the spillover happened across 97.”
While crews actioned the fire right away, it moved “up the hill fairly rapidly away from Highway 97.”
Controlled burns are one of the main methods the BC Wildfire Service uses to fight forest fires. In July, controlled burns had been used to successfully keep the Gustafsen fire from jumping Highway 97 as well as to protect the 100 Mile mills. Controlled burns were also being conducted to keep the Chasm mill safe.
There was a lot of attention on controlled burns this year, according to chief fire information Officer Kevin Skrepnek.
“Really it’s a fundamental part of wildland firefighting and on fires of the size and intensity that we saw in 2017, it’s one of the best tools that we have. A fire the size of Elephant Hill isn’t something we can put out with aircraft or water. You need to contain that fire by removing the fuel in its path.”
“Certainly, it was occurring daily on probably all of these fires, again, because it is such a key aspect of what we do in terms of containing large incidents. A lot of planning goes in to these planned ignitions and the vast majority of them were successful in terms of achieving the objectives that we were after. You know, some of them didn’t go as planned but on the whole they were a really successful tool and a key aspect of how we were able to contain a lot of these fires.”
Alongside the fire crews employed by the BC Wildfire Service, contract crews are an essential part of fire response, says Skrepnek.
“We utilized thousands of contract firefighters from the forest industry this year. They are a pretty key part of our response in any season, but especially this year. We called upon the contract community just given their familiarity with the area and a lot of their skill sets as well.”
Aircraft, helicopters and the staff that fly and maintain them are all on contract, says Skrepnek, as well as many of the specialist personnel on the ground – tree fallers, danger tree assessors, and other resources.
“It is a great resource for us because it allows us to augment our crews and the crews we bring in from out of province as well. We leveraged that community as much as we could this year and they were a big help. Especially on fires, once we had some containment on them, we could then turn that over to contract crews so they could mop up and free up our resources to move onto newer higher priority fires.”
Zach Smith, a volunteer fire fighter from Canim Lake who worked on contract with BC Wildfire, had nothing but praise for the BC Wildfire Service.
|Zach Smith's group of Canim Lake firefighters. Submitted photo.
“To be on the front line and to see how the ministry is dealing with the fires. At least the section that we had, they did a really good job of containing it so that we were able to go in and mop it up. They made good use of their helicopters to bomb it and to corner it so that it wouldn’t spread until we got there, to get inside and to mop it up with hoses and stuff.”
His crew helped with mopping up: controlling hotspots after the fire passed through.
With the help of danger tree assessors, first they identified trees to cut down.
“We cut down a lot of trees that were on fire or that were at risk of being on fire and then you bucket up and keep it all contained in the middle of the fire zone, not on the outside. Then we had to move our pumps around.”
They used a swamp as a water source, says Smith.
“We had to run about 400 meters of hosing from that pump to our fire line. Once that was set up, you take your equipment like your hand tools and you go around and start digging up the hotspots.”
While many of the trees were already burned Smith says it’s not too scary because they work with professionals who have a structure and a way to do things.
“People have looked at these things and decided what the best way to do things is and there’s a lot of common sense involved too. As long as you’re always thinking safety first and making sure that a professional is taking care of it, someone who’s experienced, it always goes usually pretty well.”
The type of ground plays a big factor too, says Smith.
“A lot of the ground here is clay so it retains a lot of the heat from the fire. So you have to find those hot spots dig them up. It’s time-consuming because there’s a lot of hotspots in the fire zone. So you dig them up and then you water them down and it’s just a continual process.”
The next step is cold trailing, according to Smith.
Crews clear brush away from the perimeter of fire so they can see the black outline. Then, when it’s safe to do so, they’ll dig with their hands into the ground.
“You’re finding any hotspots because the way the ground is here, there’s a lot of dry moss and leaves and the fire will actually travel underground where you can’t even see it and then you’re waiting for the right circumstances when the wind picks up and it’s really dry out then it can spark back up. So it’s a really time-consuming process of just constantly digging and digging and just making sure you got every hotspot you can find.”
Smith says his wife and kids evacuated during the Gustafsen fire but he stayed behind.
“When your province is on fire, you can either sit somewhere in a hotel room and watch it on TV or you can go and do something. I’m a first responder and have a level 3 first aid plus I’m a heavy equipment operator too, so there’s a lot of skills there that are necessary to be out there. So instead of me sitting at home, and just like a lot of other people here [at the Canim Lake band], we all decided to see what we can do to help.”
Smoke from the Elephant Hill fire approaching a Sheridan Lake residence. Aaron Taylor photo.
On Aug. 9, things were looking a little better. The Elephant Hill fire seemed to have calmed to the north and the evacuation order on Highway 97 was lifted from Chasm to 70 Mile. Light southerly-pushing winds were blowing, making for some activity to the south. The fire was estimated at 117,170 hectares.
On Aug. 11 the winds changed.
Crews had been prepping for the flip from the light southerlies to strong northbound winds, but the fire had other things in mind.
By Aug. 12, the fire was mapped at 149,914 hectares, a growth of more than 25,000 hectares from the previous day.
“The winds were incredibly gusty today, which made firefighting efforts very difficult,” said fire information officer Noelle Kekula.
By Aug. 13 the fire had grown to 168,092 hectares, another 18,000 hectares. The map showed it overtaking Pressy Lake.
|Elephant Hill fire perimeter August 11 to 13.
“You build these control lines, you burn the area off, you think you’ve removed the fuel along the perimeter so if all those unburned fuels [between the guard and the fire] ignite, it won’t jump the control lines. But, the winds were such that it did jump the control line and it took a run to the north.”
There was no protection on the homes in Pressy Lake which Smith, Merriman and other Pressy Lake residents would find out later through a Freedom of Information request.
The day before Pressy Lake burned, the fire was estimated to be over 15 km away, according to the BC Wildfire Service.
“This is probably one of the more damaging and destructive fires that this province has ever seen,” says chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.
“In terms of the area it burned this would be one of the five biggest fires in our province’s history. In terms of the damage done to structures and homes it is also going to be one of the more significant fires in the province’s history.
“It was a challenging incident without a doubt.”
He says steep terrain and plenty of fuel provided consistent challenges for firefighters.
“Wind in this area is a huge issue both in terms of the wind speeds we deal with and just the wind’s activity and the fire can react to that fairly severely.”
For the first few days after the fire maps showed the perimeter over Pressy Lake, Merriman and Smith waited.
Someone from Pressy Lake found pictures a logger had taken driving through their community.
“We all knew then,” says Smith.
While their home wasn’t shown in the pictures, they knew the community was devastated.
“We were just praying and hoping that our home was still there,” says Merriman.
The next five days would prove torturous.
“We were pretty anxious. It was building up and building up and building up and from what we heard, other people had gone in there – they had gone the back way – and they said they had seen the devastation.”
On Aug. 18 the Thompson-Nicola Regional District began making calls to the people who lost their homes.
Merriman was the one to pick up the phone.
“I put it on speaker phone,” she says. “The lady on the end, she was good, she was understanding what we were going through.
“We just broke down and cried. It was so hard to believe. So surreal that we just moved there in May and it just didn’t seem like this was happening.”
“We lost all our memories,” says Smith.
Smith and Merriman’s house before and after the Elephant Hill fire came through. Submitted photo.
Even outside of Elephant Hill, fire was not done with the area as several new fires had cropped up.
On Aug. 12, the same day winds blew the fire towards Pressy Lake, as many as nine new fires were reported due to a lightning storm to the northeast of 100 Mile House.
Overnight, portions of Canim Lake were evacuated.
The Canim Lake band, who had been operating an emergency operations centre since the beginning of the Gustafsen fire, swung into action evacuating 199 members, including a wedding party, with the use of 45 vehicles and one bus. They also got their animals out, transporting four 4-H steers and three swine using two trailers with an hour’s notice.
Canim Lake would have to evacuate twice by the end of the summer, when a portion of the fire would escape the containment lines and prompt a second evacuation.
Ultimately, the Canim Lake Band would spend an estimated $100,000 as a result of the wildfires, putting fire guards around the community, delivering food and caring for community members.
“We got a lot of positive feedback and the spirit was really warm and a really high sense of community spirit and community contributions because it took a lot of hands, a lot of minds. It was basically a collective of people looking after a collective of people,” says Helen Henderson Information Officer for the Canim Lake Band.
Concurrently, progress was being made on the southern portion of the Elephant Hill fire.
On August 15, Clinton was allowed home. Two days later, a fire information officer told the Free Press “things are stable for now.”
|Bombers from Quebec work off of Green Lake. Joanne Macaluso photo.
The fire moved to 25 percent containment and on Aug. 20 evacuation orders that had covered the Cariboo Regional District to the north of Green Lake were downgraded to an alert.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said fire information officer Noelle Kekula.
Things slowly, but surely, were looking up.
On Aug. 27, the fire was listed at 50 percent contained, but two days later flames would breach the northern fire guards and take a nine-kilometre run north, towards Jack Frost Lake.
People who had just settled back into their homes were ordered out a second time.
“The fire is being pushed around in different areas depending on where in the fire you are looking,” said fire information officer Claire Allen.
Water skimmers and air tankers worked, skimming off of Green Lake and Watch Lake.
Still, the fire moved north.
Ranchers were able to access permits to get their cattle out and away from the advancing flames.
“You just go out here day after day. You look for tracks,” says Gus Horn, who helped his friend and fellow rancher Ron Eden collect cattle.
|Rancher Ron Eden looks back towards flames while he and Gus Horn spend time behind the firelines looking for cattle. Gus Horn photo.
“It adds up. You think you’ve spent all day and you only got five head — well, it was better than none. If you get five head for ten days you’ve got 50 head. A life is a life.”
“What I’ve seen burn is there is nothing that won’t burn,” says Horn.
“Clearcuts that are five or ten years old will burn; they’ll burn slower because there’s less fuel. Fresh clearcuts that were done last winter; they burned really hot because there is so much dry matter and little green. For the most part, willows and aspen slows it right down. I’ve seen wetland meadows that are fine and I’ve seen wetland meadows that are burnt from one side to the other because there is so much old dry matter that is there.”
By Sept. 1 it reached 186,000 hectares.
On Sept. 2 it hit Sheridan Lake.
Paradise Bay owner Chris Brown was waiting for it.
“I had had sprinklers up on my house and behind my house and every day I would go out with the fire hose and wet down all the trees around my house, because I’m surrounded by trees,” he says.
When the west and southern portions of Sheridan Lake were evacuated on Aug. 30, Brown stayed behind. He packed his furniture and belongings out, but hoped he could save his house and shop should the worst happen.
On Sept. 1, the day before the fire reached the resort, Brown slept in his boat, fearing the fire could reach his house before morning.
In the meantime, Brown did his best to keep his house, and several other cabins along the south side of the lake, wet.
In the days before the fire reached the lake, structural protection crews from Ontario showed up at the resort and outfitted the place with more sprinklers. Then, using his boat, Brown helped shepherd them to the cabins inaccessible by road to do the same.
“We were all here on Saturday at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and you could tell that the fire was close,” he says. “We’d see trees erupting into flame to the northwest of us, and there were probably 20, 30 guys around the place and it started to burn pretty ferociously over there.”
The structural protection units were forced to leave, while Brown and one other local hopped in the boat to watch the fire approach.
“It was just like a monster blowtorch going down the south side of the lake. All of these trees were erupting into flame faster than an animal could even run away from. It was just crazy,” says Brown.
Smoke and flames as seen from Sheridan Lake. Chris Brown video.
“Where the resort was just all turned black, just with smoke. Like a pyroclastic cloud just came through the resort. You could see it coming through the back and it worked its way to the front and then it worked its way to the water and we were just sitting out in the water and everything just disappeared in that black cloud. We couldn’t see anything.”
He says he had no idea whether his buildings had survived.
“I was sure nothing could survive that. I was sure I was sitting out there and with that smoke I figured I would come over here and there would be seven buildings on fire,” he says.
“We just waited for about 20 minutes as that cloud came towards us slowly across the lake. It would come out into the lake 100 yards or so, and then, I don’t know, the wind just started to change coming from the northwest,” he says.
“It just blew all the smoke out of here. The smoke cleared out and I couldn’t believe it. All the buildings were still standing and the fire that was on the south shore just pushed more south.”
Together, the two who had stayed put out spot fires at the back of the property, and shortly after all the firefighters reappeared, set up, and started fighting fire behind the resort.
Staying was the right decision in order to protect his property, says Brown, but he has high praise for the firefighters and structural protection crews he saw at work in the area.
“They did show up on time and they did do their stuff, but I think it’s always better if you are there to help, because then they go, oh, okay we’ll give this guy a hand. But even all the cabins we went to, the boys did a great job. I thought they really worked their little hearts out and got sprinklers set up everywhere, hose and pumps. They ran miles of hose, just amazing.”
Only a small patch of land at the corner of his property burned, but Brown says he’s not sure how much time he spent watching the fire burn from the boat.
“Time just stood still as the whole world was burning around me.”
Brown says he was lucky his resort survived.
For Smith and Merriman, the long road back to normal was barely beginning.
Signs welcoming back residents returning to the northern portion of the Elephant Hill fire. Carole Rooney photo.
It would be 83 days in total before the Elephant Hill fire would be listed as “100 per cent contained.”
Rains on Sept. 8 started to bring a sense of security back to the area, although fire officials warned it wasn’t time to celebrate yet.
“It definitely isn’t a reprieve but it feels like it a little bit. We definitely are not letting our backs down, our guards down, because we know it can bounce back pretty quick because this is a small amount of rain after months of no precipitation. It’s really nice to receive but we’re definitely not out of the woods,” said fire information officer Noelle Kekula at the time.
On Sept. 16 all of the evacuation orders in the Cariboo Regional District were downgraded to alerts. By the next day all the Thompson-Nicola Regional District would downgrade the remainder of their evacuation orders.
On Sept. 20, 77 days after evacuations were first ordered, both districts would signal the “all clear.”
An overview of the evacuation alerts, orders and wildfire perimeters in the Cariboo during the summer of 2017. CRD video.
By Sept. 27, the Elephant Hill fire was 100 per cent contained.
“That is a testament to the hard work that the firefighters have done over the course of the summer and the cooler wetter weather that we have been getting on the fire over the last little while,” said fire information officer Jody Lucius at the time.
“People in the area around the Elephant Hill wildfire will continue to see smoke and potentially flame for the coming period. It could be up to a couple months depending on the weather.”
A similar scenario had occurred on the Gustafsen fire.
|Fire crews from 100 Mile House respond to a flare up on the Gustafsen fire. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.
“We still looked after hotspots,” says 108 Fire Chief Marcelle Ried.
“We were getting four or five calls a day for flare ups.”
Fire crews did the same with hot spots on the Elephant Hill fire.
“We start off with a map that has been scanned by a drone or helicopter and we have certain spots on the map that we have to go about hitting and get to the spot,” says Nathan Thomas, a BC Wildfire Service firefighter with the Princeton Sierras.
Once there, depending on if they have water or not, crew members can either use water to douse the heat or “dry mop” it.
“Dry mopping is we take the hot stuff and put it with the cold dirt, using things like digging [with] your hand tool and make sure it’s out.”
The crews are given an objective; they’re asked to put out hot spots within a certain distance from the fire perimeter.
“Whatever they ask for, you just try to smash it and get it done,” says Thomas.
Crews were noticeably covered in dirt from their work.
|Firefighters Rob Bergen (left) and Nathan Thomas rest their Pulaskis on their shoulders while taking a break from putting out hot spots. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.
“What you want to do is you want to prevent it from spreading,” says Thomas, showing off an axe with a flattened shovel on one side, known as a Pulaski.
“Say you have a log that is down on the ground and you want to cut it, you use it as an axe and then what you do is you just dig down around where the hot spot is you just get down to the mineral soil and try to prevent that fire from spreading any further and then you try to get it out with cold dirt,” he says.
Depending on whether the hot spot is on fire or simply smouldering, Thomas says it can take anywhere from a couple hours to an entire day to put out one spot.
“Can’t really put a thumb on it. You just got to put it out and make sure it doesn’t spread,” he says.
As fire crews gained control of the fires, a different sort of challenge would begin for residents who lost their homes.
Thompson-Nicola Regional District Chair John Ranta, after expressing sadness for those who lost their homes, had a bit of a warning for what to expect at a meeting for Loon Lake residents returning home.
“We feel it’s safe to be back in the residences and properties on Loon Lake.”
He warned returning residents to be wary of “ash pits” on their properties, where organic matter may have burned underground. “It might look safe, but you could get a nasty surprise.”
He also warned of the narrow, winding road with steep banks on either side leading in to the lake. “Rocks and trees might fall on the road, so be careful and cautious. And there is that same potential on your properties.”
For those like Lorne Smith, who lost his home to the Elephant Hill wildfire, there were very different types of questions.
“Once you get that call you go into a panic mode of now what? What do we do? Where do we go? What is going to happen to us now?” says
After a re-entry meeting with the BC Wildfire service and the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, the couple returned to their once-home.
“It was pretty emotional. We saw the pictures, we knew what it looked like, but you get there and stand and look over it and see all the things – like, you can recognize where the wood stove was, and the washer and dryer was, and the toaster and my grandmother’s dishes.”
When Smith bent over to pick up one of the perfectly preserved dishes, it collapsed into dust.
They found a few things in the ash – a family member’s pocketwatch, a brother’s camera, antique pottery they’d collected through the years.
They were insured, so their insurance policy kicked in to begin to cover the cost of replacing items. Still, some things, like Smith’s grandmother’s pump organ, and his great grandmother’s liquor cabinet would prove harder to replace.
“These two things were the ones that really hurt me.”
Between moving to Pressy Lake in May, and finally finding a place to stay in Clinton until their home is rebuilt, the couple lived in five homes over the summer.
They spent two months in a basement suite in Port Coquitlam, and came to know the Emergency Support Services in the Lower Mainland.
“We had to go every week, every week and a half,” says Smith.
“They helped us feel like people again, because at some points there it just felt like where are we? We had no place to go, we didn’t know where we were going, what we were going to be doing, but they helped us out a lot.”
Even shopping for something as simple as clothing could prove difficult.
“There were days where I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go shopping for clothes it was just so hard to do that, I said to Lorne, I can’t do this,” says Merriman.
“I said I can’t do this. He said you have to.”
Friends offered to donate furniture and some even set up a GoFundMe page to help the couple with the costs of getting resettled.
Still, they still feel like they are in limbo.
“We had everything planned. We had a plan. We had a goal and we were going to be up there for 10 months of the year and probably head down south with the trailer for two months and that was our retirement plan. Explore all over the place. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.”