When I heard, on September 29 last year, that the Elephant Hill wildfire was finally — after 70 days — 100 per cent contained, I started to cry.
They were tears of relief. I knew there was still a lot of work to do, and that the effects of the fire would be felt for years to come. But the fire that had dominated the summer of 2017 and devastated the lives of so many was finally completely contained, and perhaps, however slowly, life could go back to something approaching normal.
What came to be known as the Elephant Hill wildfire started on July 6; the same day, back in 1916, that the Great Fire that wiped out most of Ashcroft’s business district started. It exploded into life on July 7, and for the rest of the summer dominated the news, conversations, and the lives of thousands of people.
Elephant Hill was not the only massive wildfire in the province last year; the Gustafsen and Plateau fires were also monsters. People whose only firsthand experience of fire was a campfire were bandying around terms like “fuel load” and “controlled burn” and arguing for and against the use of the Martin Mars bomber.
The innate goodness of people shone through, as hundreds volunteered their time to help in any way they could. Donations of food, clothing, household goods, furniture, and more poured in to affected communities. Businesses stayed open in the face of evacuation orders to provide meals for first responders. Our volunteer firefighters were magnificent, going above and beyond to keep their communities safe.
On the other hand, misinformation ran rampant, gaining a foothold on social media and causing unnecessary stress and panic. Some media outlets also perpetuated misinformation, often well after the fact. All levels of government, as well as many organizations, acknowledged that they had been unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and duration, and promised to learn from the experience going forward.
And they need to, because the sad fact is that it’s not a case of “if” something like last year’s wildfires happens again; it’s a questions of “when”. It might not be for a year, or five years, or 10 years, but another season of wildfires like that seen in 2017 will happen again, and it means we must be prepared for it.
That means all of us. Tempting as it is to expect someone else to look after us, we all bear a responsibility to ourselves, our families, and our communities to learn from last year and take steps to mitigate the effects of wildfires, floods, and other disasters. We cannot entirely prevent damage from fires, but we can all play a part in reducing the risk.
As the anniversary of July 7 approaches, and another fire season kicks into high gear, we all need to be vigilant. Fireproof your house and property. Have a grab and go bag ready. Discuss a plan with your family in case you need to evacuate. But do not let fear run your life. There will be fires in B.C. this summer, and smoke; there always are. Remind yourself that we have survived them in the past; we will continue to do so. Enjoy the summer, and enjoy life as normal — however that looks to you now — with family and friends.