A BC Hydro helicopter drops a new power pole into position on the hillside high above Ashcroft. Christopher Roden

Cache Creek residents return, crews battle Elephant Hill wildfire

Residents, who had been on evacuation order since July 7, were able to return on July 18.

Thick smoke from the Elephant Hill (formerly Ashcroft Reserve) fire blanketed the region starting on Sunday, July 16 as a cold front passing through the area caused the wind to shift and start blowing from the north, pushing smoke back to the south.

However, there was good news for Cache Creek residents, who were evacuated on July 7. On July 17, Cache Creek mayor John Ranta announced that the evacuation order was being lifted, and replaced with an evacuation alert, at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, July 18.

Residents were not allowed back in to the village until after 3 p.m. Tuesday. Ranta said that as there was still fire in the area and that the town was very smoky, some residents might prefer to stay where they were for the time being until the situation improved.

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With the return of Cache Creek residents, Highway 1 between Ashcroft and Cache Creek, and east to Kamloops, was expected to reopen on July 18. Highway 97 between Cache Creek and Clinton remained closed. Cornwall Road was also still closed.

On July 17 the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) announced that a Rapid Damage Assessment (RDA) Team has been deployed to assess the damage to properties at Loon Lake due to the Elephant Hill fire. Although the fire is still active in the area, the BC Wildfire Service has determined that the RDA team can begin preparations to safely enter the area and begin their assessment.

The fire, which started on the evening of July 6 just south of Ashcroft, has—as of the time of writing on July 18—swelled to more than 52,000 hectares. Hundreds of people from communities including the Ashcroft Reserve, the Bonaparte Reserve, 16 Mile, and Loon Lake are on evacuation order, while other communities—such as Clinton, Chasm, and Thompson River Estates—remain on evacuation alert.

For a full list of evacuation orders and alerts in the region, with maps showing the areas and properties affected, go to www.tnrd.ca.

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As of July 18, the air quality index in the area stood at 7, which is in the “high” category. For current air quality information, visit the BC Air Quality Health Index at http://bit.ly/2txGBco.

BC Wildfire Service crews were conducting controlled burnoffs and building and reinforcing fire guards throughout the area late last week and through the weekend. As of July 18 the Ashcroft Reserve fire—the largest one currently burning in the province—was zero per cent contained; but Mike McCulley, a fire information officer for the BC Wildfire Service, said on July 17 that “huge progress” had been made in combatting the blaze.

“The fire grew less in the last 24 hours than it has in several days. Fire activity is a little bit lower, the air is cooler as you can tell by the smoke laying down… which is a real advantage for fire suppression. It allows our crews to get right in there and start digging hard. Mostly good news, although the fire is still out of control and we’re being pretty cautious about safety of the crews, [we’re] making sure that everything’s in order as we try to get containment.”

McCulley says that crews have been out using all their tools, including burnoffs and fire breaks. “The focus is on where life and property are at stake. Crews are heavily embedded around 16 Mile, and they will keep working on that area, but sometimes you just have to get out of the way, for safety.”

The current burnoff operations have been along Highway 97, the west edge of the fire, according to McCulley.

“[Crews] continue to just keep burning back from the control lines and tying those guard lines together and working up that side. You know that highway corridor is very important obviously for all the people in the area that are evacuated from all the communities. It’s a way in and out. It has the power lines and fibre optic, there’s homes along that area, so it has been a high priority since day one so they were burning in those areas and they will keep doing that as we go.

“People need to pay close attention to the TNRD website; you’ll find information [about evacuation orders and alerts] there. Be on extremely high alert, and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Stay calm and listen to officials.

“The forecast continues to be hot and dry, and windy again. It’s still a big, active fire, with big risks. The incident commander and team are taking it very seriously.”

Sgt. Kathleen Thain of the Ashcroft RCMP detchment confirmed to The Journal that stories of looting in Cache Creek while the town was evacuated were unfounded.

“That is the biggest piece of misinformation out there,” she says. “There have been no reports of looting, and we have not attended any incidents.” Chief Greg Blain of the Ashcroft Indian Band says that there have been no cases of looting or horse-stealing on the Ashcroft Reserve, despite rumours to the contrary.

Thain notes that there has been a strong police presence in the Village of Cache Creek. “Members from Southeast District have been brought in to run the Emergency Operations Centre.”

Any locals worried that day-to-day policing in area communities is at risk should rest assured. “The people at the roadblocks are not from our community. Ashcroft RCMP are still answering local calls for service.

“We are responding to calls for service, and assisting [the emergency efforts] where necessary. We are here, and we will respond.”

Members of the Ashcroft and Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Departments continued regular patrols in the area through the weekend of July 15. As of July 17 the Ashcroft fire department had returned to regular duties, with fire chief Josh White stationed in Cache Creek with the rescue truck until the evacuation order for that village was lifted. Firefighters in Cache Creek remained on duty, with Ashcroft prepared to assist should the need arise.

Members of the media were allowed into the Boston Flats trailer park on Tuesday, July 11. Fifty-seven of the 60 residences there were destroyed when fire swept through.

Thain confirmed that residents of Boston Flats had been allowed back in to visit the site before the media tour. This was done on purpose, so that those residents who wanted to visit could do so privately and without the press being present. It also meant that the residents were able to see the site at first hand before any images began appearing in the media.

Evacuees from the area should register at the Sandman Centre at 300 Lorne Street, Kamloops. For information, call the TNRD Emergency Operations Centre at 1-866-377-7188. All evacuees are also required to register with the Red Cross at 1-800-863-6582 or www.redcross.ca.

The TNRD has opened a resiliency centre in Kamloops at the City of Kamloops’ Soccer Central Lounge and Meeting Room at 1550 Island Parkway on McArthur Island. The centre is scheduled to be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but check the centre’s hours on the TNRD’s website before visiting.

The resiliency centre will provide resources for evacuees, including insurance advice from the Insurance Bureau of Canada and insurers. The centre will also house a variety of non-governmental agencies (NGOs) that will be able to provide services for evacuees. Service Canada will also be located at the centre.

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