Jennifer Brown and her father, Dave Brown, were introducing her 8-month-old baby to the beloved family cabin on Pressy Lake in early July, when she first smelled smoke, she says. Both the Elephant Hill and the Gustafsen fires had started burning.
As the lake got smokier, they ended up deciding to leave, travelling via Little Fort, since the road had closed at Cache Creek.
“We were going, okay, we’ll go back when the smoke clears.”
They didn’t get a chance. Over the next month, 100 Mile House would be evacuated and then, have those orders downgraded, while the Elephant Hill fire continued to expand until Pressy Lake and the areas around it were evacuated.
Over the weekend of Aug. 11 to 13 the fire made a huge expansion north, moving from an area parallel with Young Lake north towards Little Green Lake.
In the process, the fire ripped through Pressy Lake.
Of 100 properties inventoried by the TNRD in the area, 47 are untouched, 10 have sustained minor damage, and 43 saw significant damage or were fully burnt. Some residents of Pressy Lake said learning that information took longer than they liked.
“We couldn’t get any information,” says Brown. “It was miscommunicated that someone had said 51 cabins were gone, and we’re going, ‘Well, that’s pretty much our entire community.”
Residents formed a private Facebook where they shared information — any information they had. Brown tracked down a logger who had passed through the area who confirmed that cabins in the area had burned. In the meantime, residents waited for the phone calls they knew were coming from the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD).
“It was pretty frustrating. I think we were all upset that we weren’t getting the information but at the same time the fire was crazy, the crews got driven out because it came up so fast,” she says.
“We knew that they obviously couldn’t go in and give us answers so I think a lot of the anger coming from the lake was that everyone wanted an answer and we obviously couldn’t get one.”
The TNRD called property owners individually to tell them about their losses. Brown says that residents had agreed in a group chat to start posting when they found out information about their house so they could track the pattern the fire took through the community.
“But once we started getting the phone calls, the first person was like, ‘Yup. I got a call. There is nothing left,” and then the next person is going up: ‘I got a call, there is nothing left,’ and that just went on for a couple of hours.”
Brown decided to head to her father’s house, so she could be there when the call came through. Dave is 76, and had not only lost his wife five years ago to cancer, but lost a son, Jesse, this year to a fentanyl overdose. The spot on Pressy Lake was both their favourite places.
“Sure enough, the phone rang. I pushed him out of the way and grabbed the phone because I didn’t want him to hear and of course it’s the TNRD. Right away, I go, ‘Oh my God, is this the TNRD,’ and she goes, ‘Yes, but it’s actually good news.”
The fire had come within four feet of their first cabin, missed gravestones they had put in place for the dogs, a bench and a corner of the lot where a previous owner, Charlie Rose’s ashes were placed.
“It was almost like a solid line of where it was burned,” says Jennifer.
The news was welcome relief for a family who had lost a mother and a brother.
“We were going back and forth with the family going this can’t possibly happen. There’s no way there can be more destruction on the family. How can we lose that too, because it’s our home. It’s our second home. It has been for almost 30 years. So everyone just kept saying they are protecting it,” she says. “I don’t know what was going on up there, but there was a whole bunch of people pulling for our little spot.”
Looking at the photos, Jennifer wondered why she didn’t see fire retardant or sprinklers on the cabins.
Even more, the fire didn’t seem to have a pattern of what it touched and what it didn’t.
“The cabin next to us was fine, the cabin next to them was completely gone,” she says. “There was no pattern, rhyme or reason to what the fire did throughout the lake. We’ve got permanent residents there who have literally lost everything. There are friends of ours on the corner. They have nothing.”
Still, Jennifer feels guilty that her family’s cabin survived.
“When we got the call, we were trying not to say anything because we’re thinking, oh God, we’re okay and all these people aren’t, so it’s hard to be happy,” she says.
“I feel like it would have just broken my dad. It would have been just the last straw of what life has handed him the past couple years.”
She wonders what it will be like to go back.
“We’re really trying to rally together as a community, planning fundraisers down the road,” she says.
“Everyone’s really just trying to delve into who they know and what they know and what they know that can help. Definitely the community, we’re really really trying to be there for our neighbours because it’s such a small lake. You know everyone.”
She started a Facebook page, Pressy Lake Strong, to help with the rebuilding effort.
However, she says there’s still a lot of anger and questions within the Pressy Lake community about how so many of their homes and cabins were destroyed.
“You don’t know what to believe because you’re not there. You can’t see it. That’s no one’s fault. The fire is huge and they are spread thin and they are doing the best they can and no one expected this to happen.”
Still, she says, many are wondering that if people knew the fire was headed their way, why people weren’t there earlier.
In a small way, she compares it to when she was a member of the armed forces in Afghanistan.
“I knew what it was like when the public criticized the job that we were doing as soldiers when they weren’t there and didn’t know what was going on. Throughout the entire process, all I keep saying is I am so thankful for the guys that are fighting this and for the firefighters. It’s not their fault that things are going the way they are,” she says, adding that it’s hard not to have somewhere to direct your anger.
“In a devastating situation, and you have nothing to point a finger at, it can be quite frustrating.”
In better years, Jennifer and her family would spend an entire summer at the cabin. She says the moment the order is lifted she’ll be headed back with her dad.
“Just to make sure that I am there for him and whatever we can do for our neighbours,” she says. “So no one is facing it alone.”