Fire races along the hillside across the Thompson River from Ashcroft on the afternoon of July 7. Barbara Roden

Ashcroft-area wildfire leaves many homeless, evacuated, and under alert

The fire, which started at 2.1 hectares on July 6, has now reached more than 10,000 hectares.

A wildfire that broke out on Ashcroft Indian Band land west of Ashcroft late on Thursday, July 6 has caused devastation throughout the region as it spread rapidly north, fanned by high winds and fueled by tinder-dry conditions and hot weather.

As of the time of writing on July 10, the Ashcroft Reserve fire covered 6,150 hectares according to the B.C. Wildfire Service, and was still spreading. It has forced the evacuation of thousands of people from Cache Creek, 16 Mile, 20 Mile, Scottie Creek, and Hihium, with Loon Lake residents on evacuation alert. Clinton was not under threat as of July 10.

Some fifty structures were destroyed in the Ashcroft area on the afternoon of July 7, including more than a dozen houses on the Ashcroft Reserve, two hangars and a residence at the Campbell Hill Airport, a residence beside Highway 97C west of Ashcroft, and a residence just within the boundary of the Village of Cache Creek.

The Boston Flats Trailer Park near the junction of Highways 1 and 97C suffered the most. Almost all of the residences in the trailer park were completely destroyed, with some residents left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Miraculously, no one appears to have been killed or severely injured.

The fire broke out shortly after 10 p.m. on July 6, and B.C. Wildfire Service attended. As of midnight that night the fire was listed as being 2.1 hectares in size, and was believed to be human-caused. The Wildfire Service is investigating the cause of the fire.

On Friday, July 7 the fire, fanned by sudden high winds in the mid-morning, spread rapidly, racing across Ashcroft Indian Band land. It jumped Cornwall Road and continued north and east, burning along the hillside to the west of Ashcroft and up Elephant Mountain, as well as along Highway 1 by the former Eagle Motorplex. It also moved through the bluffs west of Ashcroft, where one residence was destroyed, and on to Boston Flats.

Members of Ashcroft Fire Rescue, the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department, and the B.C. Wildfire Service, as well as members of the Ashcroft RCMP detachment, attended the scene. Helicopters and fixed-wing planes were soon on hand to battle the blaze from the air.

The Village of Ashcroft issued an Evacuation Alert notice in the early afternoon of July 7, but was hampered in its efforts to communicate this to residents because of the loss of all power at around 1:30 p.m. All phone lines were also down, and cell service was only available at higher elevations such as the Mesa subdivision and along Highway 97C going toward Logan Lake.

As a precautionary measure, staff at the Ashcroft Hospital evacuated all the residents from Jackson House (long-term care) at the hospital, as well as all assisted living residents and two other vulnerable residents at Thompson View Manor and Lodge, to facilities in Merritt.

As the fire—estimated then at some 700 hectares—headed toward Cache Creek it took two paths, potentially encircling the Village. Late afternoon on July 7, Cache Creek mayor John Ranta issued an evacuation order for all residents of the Village, who were directed to report to an Emergency Social Services centre in Kamloops operated by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.

Cache Creek resident Steve Jansen was close enough to the wildfire that red fire retardant was plastered along the bottom of his truck. “We were one of the last ones out of there,” he said. He added that as Cache Creek and Ashcroft have done in previous tragedies—including the floods this past spring and in 2015—community members were banding together.

“We banded together for the floods, and everything else,” he said.

Mayor Ranta also declared a state of local emergency in Cache Creek, and members of the Cache Creek Fire Department remained in the Village, to continue assisting with firefighting.

Highway 1 from 10 kilometres south of Cache Creek to five kilometres east was closed, as was Highway 97C from Ashcroft to the junction with Highway 1. With the gas station in Ashcroft unable to supply fuel because of the power outage, and no access to gas stations in Cache Creek, the only option for residents of Ashcroft who needed gas was to take Highway 97C to Logan Lake. The highway was closed to all but local traffic.

By the evening of July 7 the fire was estimated at 4,000 hectares and still spreading. Throughout the weekend more people—including those in 16 Mile, 20 Mile, Scottie Creek, and Hihium—had been evacuated, with Loon Lake on evacuation alert.

In the meantime, major wildfires had broken out all over B.C. in places including Princeton, Williams Lake, Hanceville, Quesnel, and 100 Mile House. These fires, and the Ashcroft Reserve fire, were all in addition to the major Gustafsen fire west of 100 Mile House, which was discovered on July 6. The fires prompted Transportation Minister Todd Stone to declare a state of emergency in the province on the evening of July 7; the first such declaration since the forest fire season of 2003.

On Saturday, July 8 the entire region was blanketed in thick smoke from the numerous fires burning in the area. An information centre manned by Village of Ashcroft staff and council was set up at the fire hall, and donations of food and water began coming in for the firefighters and volunteers. Royal Canadian Legion Branch #113 opened its doors for a free barbecue on Saturday afternoon.

One resident with a generator went around town offering its use to those who needed power, while up on the Mesa, Ken Gilpin used his generator to power a free cell phone charging station. Firefighters from Ashcroft and Cache Creek, along with firefighters from Logan Lake, worked to battle spot fires and do regular patrols throughout the area.

Members of the Ashcroft Village Crew also worked tirelessly through the night of July 7 and throughout Saturday to ensure that the Village’s water system continued to function. However, with the power still out and no way to pump more from the river, by Saturday afternoon the reservoirs were down to 25 per cent of normal. With the power out, the Village had immediately gone to Stage 4 water restrictions, which meant that water could only be used for the prevention and control of fire and for personal health and safety.

Nonetheless, water ran out on the Mesa in the early evening. As residents faced a second night without power, however, a near-miracle happened.

Despite the massive damage to infrastructure, dozens of BC Hydro workers who had worked throughout July 7 and 8 managed to restore power, one section at a time, to Ashcroft. Not long after that, the Village was able to once again pump water and fill the reservoirs.

On Sunday, July 9 the information centre at the Ashcroft fire hall was once again open. All who visited in search of information were provided with a case of water, in case the power went out again and the Village was once more placed on Stage 4 water restrictions. Firefighters in Ashcroft and Cache Creek continued to deal with hot spots and spot fires and make regular patrols, and in the afternoon of July 9 the evacuation alert for Ashcroft was rescinded.

On the evening of July 9, an evacuation order was put in place for some residences near Back Valley Road, because of fire at Arrowstone.

Misinformation was rife, such as rumours on Sunday, July 9 suggesting that Cache Creek was under imminent threat and subject to looting, neither of which was true. Several major news outlets—including Global BC News, the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and Radio CHNL in Kamloops—reported that Ashcroft residents had all been evacuated. When word of this spread, many people tried to make contact with Ashcroft family and friends, and then began to worry when they could not get through by phone.

By Monday, July 10 the Ashcroft Reserve fire had spread to 6,150 hectares, with the B.C. Wildfire Service reporting that 120 firefighters, an IMT crew, eight helicopters, and eight pieces of heavy equipment were tackling it. Out-of-province fire crews were expected to be inbound to the fire on July 11.

Just after 6 p.m. on July 10, an evacuation alert was issued for more areas around Cache Creek. The alert extended eastward along Highway 1 to Thompson River Estates; north along the Bonaparte River and then east toward Loon Lake; and west through Bonaparte Indian Reserve No. 1. As of the morning of Tuesday, July 11 the fire had spread to 7,300 hectares, or more than 100 square kilometres

Outgoing premier Christy Clark has promised $100 million in assistance to those affected by the wildfires. The fund will be managed by the Canadian Red Cross. On July 9, incoming premier John Horgan travelled to Kamloops to meet with evacuees, and promised “whatever is needed to make people whole after this.”

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