“We had been planning to go into Kamloops that morning, but we were at home, putting a new desk in the office,” says Marianne Rumball. “I’m glad we didn’t go.”
“That morning” was Friday, July 7, and the office Marianne is talking about is the office that she and her husband Don had at the Boston Flats Trailer Park. The couple moved in as managers of the park in May 2017, and were alerted to the Elephant Hill wildfire just before noon.
“Don said ‘Wow, there must be a really big fire somewhere,’” says Marianne. “We got in the gator [utility vehicle] and went up to the top of the hill to check it out. We went up again about a half-hour later, and it was very alarming. The smoke was a different colour.”
She passes over her phone, where she has videos of the event. The first one, taken at noon, shows white smoke far off to the south, with much clear blue sky still visible. The second one, taken 30 minutes later, shows an angry cloud of dense black smoke obscuring most of the sky, much closer to the park than it had been.
“We went back down and drove around telling people to be aware, start thinking about what they would take if they were evacuated,” says Marianne. She and Don went back up the hill at 1 p.m. and saw that fire was coming a lot faster than normal. When they went back down to the park, they started telling people to go.
Two police officers arrived and started going door-to-door. One officer was on the phone, trying to find out where people should go. “They were caught off guard as well,” says Marianne. “It happened so quickly.
“When he got off the phone, the officer said to the other one ‘Don’t get yourself trapped.’ And I felt such a stillness then, because I realized what the situation was.”
She and Don tried to make sure everyone was accounted for; a task made more difficult by the fact that some people were at work or on holiday or had left the park already on other business.
“There were 72 people living in the park, and we pounded on doors, hollered, went in,” says Don. “But people have their daily routines and lives, and we didn’t know where some people were.”
“Thank goodness we were as busy as we were,” adds Marianne. “It kept us occupied.”
They were the last ones out, and at 2:22 p.m. watched as the fire consumed some rose bushes at the south end of the park.
“At that point it wasn’t at the trailers,” says Marianne. “It was mesmerizing. We couldn’t look away.” They watched as vehicles and structures caught fire, until it became so smoky they could not see their trailer. “It was surreal, standing there watching.”
A fixed-wing craft with retardant made a pass over the park just as the fire started into it. “That killed the flames in its path, killed the fire,” says Don. “People started cheering, because we thought it was done. There were three bombers, and I thought that if the other two came over they’d save the park.”
Instead, they watched as the other two bombers dropped their loads on the west side of Highway 1 closer to Cache Creek, then had to go back to Kamloops to refill. By the time they got back, it was too late.
“I was shocked and stunned when I saw them putting retardant on the hillside,” says Marianne. “I thought ‘They’re abandoning us.’ But I realize now they had bigger fish to fry than Boston Flats. They did the best they could, but their resources were spread so thin. They had to protect Cache Creek. Are they going to concentrate on a town, or one small community? We had no idea how big the fire would get.”
Marianne took a last picture of the trailer park before they left around 3 p.m. “That was when I realized we didn’t have a home to go back to,” says Don.
The evacuees had been told to go to the Cache Creek Community Hall, where Marianne says there was some confusion as people signed in and then left, and then Cache Creek was evacuated as well. “I heard that two people hadn’t got out of the park. Then I heard there was a fatality, and I almost collapsed.” They were able to confirm that everyone had made it out safely. “I’m very thankful and grateful that no one was lost.”
Don says they have to hand it to Emergency Services BC. “By the time we got to the Emergency Operations Centre in Kamloops around 5:30 they were already well set up with just three hours’ notice. They had food, water, fresh fruit, and Fur Paws was set up to provide for animals.”
“We were really well looked after,” adds Marianne. “There was a tremendous outpouring of help.”
Looking forward, Marianne says that if Boston Flats is restored, “People will get sick of doing safety drills. I will be a pain in everyone’s butt about it. Things like ‘Where and what is a muster point? Do you have a go-bag packed?’ But we think it won’t happen to us. I’ve known about go-bags for years but didn’t have one ready. I didn’t even grab my purse.”
They went back down with the Samaritan’s Purse volunteers (“They were great,” says Don), who recovered Don’s wedding band. Marianne says the intensity of the fire was apparent when they returned to the site. “I had about 20 pieces of cast-iron cooking equipment, and only two survived intact. And I had an amazing butchery set, but it was so twisted it was like it had turned to water.
“We had an Aladdin lamp that used to belong to Mrs. Nishiguchi, and it was just a puddle of glass with a silver ring embedded in it.”
Marianne says she thinks it unfortunate that so much time and attention has been spent on where the fire started. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not so much about where it started as it is about learning from mistakes. Where it started is not nearly as important as the fact that a fire was left unattended. Where it came from is neither here nor there.”
The park itself is closed, and a security guard is stationed at the entrance. “It’s private property, and has to be safeguarded,” says Marianne, adding that regardless of what happens, the site will be cleaned up. “A company has been hired to clean it. Right now it’s an exercise in patience.
“It was a wonderful little community. We had so much freedom. We felt we were the masters of our own little universe.”
“That little park, to me, was the most peaceful, quiet place I’ve ever lived,” says Don. “We didn’t have a bad neighbour. They were all people I’d have chosen for neighbours.”
Marianne says that a lot of people have committed to rebuilding there, but will have to wait for services to be put in. Whether that will happen depends on the owners of the park, notes Don.
“They’ll have to see what the cost is. There are a lot of variables. I’d like to go back there, but if it can’t happen it can’t happen. Some residents are fearful, but if the owners can make it happen I think they will. I have confidence they’ll do the best they possibly can for us.”