Highway 1 near Ashcroft. Matti J Lagerbom photo
The Road Home
In total, between the Elephant Hill and Gustafsen fires, 146 homes and 114 structures were lost to fire during the summer of 2017.
Across the province, the fire season was the most destructive to date, burning over a million hectares and costing the provincial government just over $560 million to fight.
But for those caught at the heart of the wildfires, the rebuild and recovery process is just beginning.
The Boston Flats Trailer Park suffered the worst damage to the fire, losing 44 homes. While many have committed to rebuilding there, say Marianne and Don Rumball, managers of the park, they will have to wait for services to be put in.
Whether that will happen depends on the owners of the park, says 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.”
For Lorne Smith and Cheryl Merriman who were one family of 33 to lose a residence at Pressy Lake, they know they’ll be rebuilding but the process is long.
First the site needs to be cleaned up.
“That’s going in and cleaning all the ash and debris and breaking the cement up because it was such an intense fire, they are going to have to redo the foundation,” says Smith.
Cheryl Merriman and Lorne Smith
In the spring, their insurance company will give them the option of three contractors within a certain price range. They’ll look at the original home’s plans and have the option of changing the design within a certain price range.
Then, they’ll need to get approval from the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. Smith says some on the lake will likely need to apply for zoning variations as their cabins were built so long ago they don’t clear the requirement of being 100 feet from the water. There’s a chance those requests could get turned down.
Then, they’ll have to wait as the house is rebuilt. The entire process could take anywhere from a year-and-a-half to two years.
“It’s frustrating, it’s anxious, but we’ve got a place now,” says Smith. “As long as we are comfortable and we can sit here in a home for two years, if it takes that.”
In the meantime, residents of Pressy are asking questions.
Why didn’t their homes have structural protection, as the BC Wildfire Service confirmed in an email to Pressy Lake residents on Sept. 29. Why had structural protection crews been in the area to set up only to not be there when they were needed?
“Even though you’ve lost everything you still want to know what happened,” says Smith, who has been particularly vocal about the issue.
He says they’ve been told to file Freedom of Information requests, requests that have been delayed, he says he was told, due to active investigations still going on internally.
“It was a pretty intense fire coming that way, but if they had sprinkler systems set up like they did at Sheridan Lake and other communities – those homes were saved. Even if we had sprinkler systems on our place we may have lost our place, but more homes would have been saved.”
Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, says that they’ll be conducting an internal debrief of how the summer fires of 2017 went and says there will also be an independent external review.
“There is always going to be room for improvement and I think any occasion of this severity is a good occasion to look at what worked well, what didn’t work, what were some of the challenges and what we can do better down the road,” he says.
“That process is just getting started right now and I expect it will be proceeding over the next few months.”
Kevin Skrepnek – Chief fire information officer
The Cariboo Regional District is also conducting a review, meeting with stakeholders and residents in the area to find out what they could have done better.
So far, says Chair Al Richmond, one of the major themes is communication.
“We could always do better. People are saying we could have done more, so we were looking at how we can do that differently. Perhaps there are more processes we didn’t use.”
Already, he says, the CRD changed its approach to dealing with ranchers as the summer progressed by working with the BC Cattlemen’s Association to put a representative in the emergency operating centre to help ranchers access permits to look for their cattle.
“Once they did, it worked very well. They understood our process and helped us to work through how we could facilitate people doing things and I think it went quite well from that point onwards.”
In the future, Richmond says that will be one of the first calls they make if they need to set up another emergency centre.
Ed Monical – Rancher
While Ed Monical hopes that the next time a fire breaks out, they’ll be able to get permits right away, he’s also making his own preparations.
“On our perimeter fences, we’re going to make bigger rideaways so you can get down with a vehicle instead of just a quad and then consequently if you do that then the cattle will graze them areas better than a narrow trail they’ll [have] a wider trail because they’ll have different types of grass. Cattle will stop fires.”
He watched areas that were grazed stop the fire as he stayed behind on his property.
|Fences burned by the Gustafsen fire. Cheryl Monical photo.|
“It’ll consequently be a fire break, natural fire break and then have tanks and pumps on hand ready to go.
“I wasn’t prepared. My niece came with a pump. My pump was on one of the other properties that I have leased which is a long way away. Have that stuff on hand ready to go.”
The preparations aren’t just for himself.
“I kept telling my boys that stayed behind and helped. I said I might not ever see a fire like this again but they might and with the experience they’ve had with us working on this one, they’ll be more prepared.”
Politicians are also planning for future fires.
100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall points to houses that survived while everything around them burned.
|100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall gives Fire Chief Roger Hollander a hearty handshake while welcoming residents home to 100 Mile House. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.|
“People that fire-smarted their house, it went right by their house. It missed them,” he says.
“We need to start looking at fire-smarting your homes, fire-smarting around yourself. We have to look around your community and we have been on it right away looking for funding to fire smart the community.
Campsall says the municipality is looking at ridding the hills around the community of the dead build up on the forest floor.
“To make sure we push the trees back as far as we can and thin them out as much as we can as well to make it safer so we’re not as concerned.
“We’ll always be concerned.”
Still, there are needs that are more immediate.
“Right from Cariboo North right through to Thompson-Nicola, this is where the damage and the devastation is and these are small rural communities,” says Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett.
“This is where the heart and soul of British Columbia lies, within this geographic area and so we’ve got big struggles ahead and we are going to need lots of support and we are going to need everyone not to play politics, but government to come to the table and work with us and ensure that we are going to get the dollars and cents that we need to rebuild these communities.”
Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett
Amy Thacker, CEO of Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, says that there are no good numbers to share. “We’ve heard a range of revenue lost from down 15 per cent to down 85 per cent,” she says.
During those first five weeks after the fires started in early July, there was an estimated economic impact of $23 million lost in the area.
“The average revenue loss per business in those first five weeks was $42,000; but the range is from one business losing $1,000 to several having losses of over $250,000 each. I think this will skew a little when the August numbers are in.”
As a business person himself, Campsall says he’s felt the struggle.
“It’s going to be a tough winter. We did not get the summer that we need to make it through the winter.”
The Red Cross gave businesses a $1,500 grant to help them on the road to recovery and Campsall hopes there will be more help coming.
The Cariboo Regional District and 100 Mile House have both hired wildfire recovery managers to collect and co-ordinate information on recovery resources, connect residents with those resources and help the area move forward.
“There are still people working towards getting back to the norm, and I think it is going to be a new normal for the rest of the time, because I’ll tell you: if we think this year was really bad it could happen again the next year and it could happen again the year after,” says Campsall.
In the meantime, Campsall hopes to get the burned wood out of the way and out of the forest to restore the look of the community while it’s still usable for logging.
“We’re looking at the positives and the positive is we are still here, we didn’t lose anybody and we’re working towards working with the province and working with the federal government to make sure we are not a community that just becomes a ghost town because we had a tragedy.”
Still, Campsall has nothing but good to say about the community during the fires.
“Our community shone, and it’s still shining.
“I know I’m saying thank you, but it’s not enough. It’s all I’ve got.
For Lorne Smith and Cheryl Merriman, they plan to stay involved in their community while they wait to rebuild.
“It’s disheartening. It’s hard but we have such a strong community with good hearts. We’ve only been there a month and a half and so many people we’ve met through our Facebook community as well as 100 Mile, all the areas, have come together … in support of each other. It’s just been amazing,” says Merriman.
“I think the fire brought a lot of people together. There are neighbours there that we probably never would have met,” says Smith
The couple still struggles with the loss of their home, but they say it’s getting better. Of every two days they have that are bad, they have five that are good.
“We are learning each day we have to be positive, that’s what I said to Lorne. We have to be positive because if we draw the negativity in it draws us down.”
While they haven’t stopped seeking answers as to what happened in their community, they just want to return home.
“We’re looking forward to getting back into our home and getting up in the morning, putting the coffee on and going out on the deck and having our coffee and relaxing,” says Smith.
Lorne Smith and Cheryl Merriman in front of the home they’re renting in Clinton. Tara Sprickerhoff photo.