Fourteen years out, and not much has really changed when it comes to fighting and surviving B.C. wildfires – or has it.
I was living on acreage north of Barriere in 2003, when the McLure-Barriere fire kicked wildfire season off with a vengeance in the B.C. Interior. During that time, I was evacuated twice, so my thoughts truly are with all those who have been evacuated this summer, or are living under the looming evacuation alert.
When reflecting back and contemplating what has changed, the advent of enhanced technologies, the wide spread of social media and internet access as a way of sharing information, and the general awareness for the need to be prepared (having a 72-hour survival kit on hand) have definitely helped this time out.
There has also been a lot more public reaction and I sense less patience for stupidity – including the pilfering that was going on in some of the fire zones. People are outraged, and so they should be.
But what hasn’t changed, and never will, is the human element to all of this.
That sense of fear, helplessness, and even terror that rocks those impacted. Driving away from your home, not knowing if it will be there when you return, is truly traumatizing. And honestly, it took me years of living back down in Langley (almost along a helicopter flight path) to get over the sense of dread when I heard a chopper overhead. In the days and weeks after the wildfires started, that sound always meant the spread of fire and potentially meant more devastation. It was almost like an alarm clock, telling you it was time to panic.
Another human element, that thankfully has not wavered through all these years, is the truly caring and compassionate outreach of most people anxious to help those in need. Thanks for all the support offered back then, and kudos to all those stepping out to help out this time around.
This was my account of the 2003 evacuation:
It was a sound I knew would come, but in my heart I never wanted to hear.
It was the sound of a police siren shrieking in the distance.
It was notice that I was being evacuated from my backwoods home on Boulder Mountain, north of Barriere.
Minutes earlier, a friend and I walked out to Bonaparte Lake Road, the gravel logging road in front of my nine-hectare (22-plus acre) farm. We wanted to look south along the tree line to see how the fire (which started the night before in the neighbouring community of McLure) was progressing or, preferably, regressing.
Unfortunately, the wind had shifted and the sky was darkening.
We were surprised, but disappointed to see that the fire was moving towards us. It was still 20 kilometres away, but it was moving in our direction.
So, when RCMP Const. Todd Vande Pol pulled down my long driveway with his police cruiser, about 4 p.m. on Aug. 1, he was there to confirm our fears.
Even though I’d spent much of the day trying to prepare for evacuation, I was still not ready.
I wanted more time.
The night before, I had just hung up the phone after telling my father not to worry, when the phone rang again. It was my editor at the time, Susan Duncan. She was dispatching me to downtown Barriere, where an emergency reception centre was being set up in Barriere Ridge School.
I spent the next three hours scouring downtown Barriere to see what was happening.
Ash was occasionally falling from the nearby fire in McLure. The highway, which I’d driven along just a few hours earlier, was not closed and traffic was backed up for a short time through town.
Local motels were juggling unexpected guests with cancellations from visitors not able to get to town. Exlou, just down the road from Barriere, was being evacuated, and the Tolko mill in Louis Creek was shutting down as a precaution.
But maybe because of the shroud of darkness, there was no real sense of panic.
Even when the power went out at 11:30 p.m., there seemed to be little fear for Barriere.
A short time later, I headed home and jumped into a hot bath. I suspected it would be the last one I would have for a while – and I was right. I was fortunate enough to be on a gravity-fed well, and still had water despite the lack of power. But I knew the hot water wouldn’t last long. After the bath, I crawled into bed.
A friend who lived on the southeast side of Barriere woke me Friday morning. My friend, Judy, had spent the previous night helping move cattle and horses on the Chiver’s River Bend ranch on the outskirts of McLure.
She recounted the horrors from the night before, including how ignorant a number of truck drivers had been and how she helped move horses and cows across the highway to safety in a field beside the river.
They managed to get the last animals across just minutes before fire consumed the mountain.
I called her back a few minutes later, after listening to the news broadcast in my van – the only radio that worked. I offered to keep listening to the news broadcasts every half hour, then call her to check in. In the meantime, I suggested she prepare to evacuate by getting personal belongings and her animals together.
Five minutes after our last call, she had apparently called back. I must have been outside trying to load a few pictures and necessities. She left a message saying she was being evacuated immediately.
Fortunately, we had made arrangements to meet at the base of Boulder Mountain in case we lost contact by telephone.
She didn’t have enough gas to get out of town, and with the power out getting more gasoline was all but impossible.
So, we knew if evacuation was necessary, we’d have to cram two women, four dogs, a bushel of cats, and a rabbit into my extended Aerostar van.
I drove down to meet her at the designated spot. I encouraged her to follow me up the mountain, to get her relatively new truck as far north and away from the fire as she could, before gas ran out.
When we arrived at my home, I gave her some breakfast, then we soaked the ground and wooden skirt around my mobile home. A neighbour, who had a traditional well, came over in the early afternoon and asked to set up a pump in a small lake no my property. He would run a hose to my home, as well as to his own, and keep the gas-powered pump refuelled.
While he worked, Judy and I continued soaking the ground and wood surfaces between calls to our loved ones elsewhere, reassuring them we were okay.
Occasionally, we’d take a break and sit out front, looking east over the valley. We kept trying to convince each other that we might be able to sit out the fire and watch it advance along the other side of the North Thompson River. Of course, that was just a delusion.
The presence of the police officer on my doorstep now, made the threat real, and we were given only a few minutes to pack up everyone and everything we could and get out.
We were directed north to safety.
I was able to load the dogs – my black lab and Jack Russell, and Judy’s two border collies – without a problem. I only caught three of my five cats. Worse, the cage for the rabbit was broken and the dogs were attempting to devour my furry friend, so I had to make a tough call to leave her behind.
The next five hours were among the longest I can ever remember.
My van overheated on the steep hill on Highway 24, between Little Fort and Lone Butte, and my sense of anxiety escalated close to a state of panic. Nevertheless, we did prevail, and arrived safely at the Kamloops registration centre about 10:30 p.m.
It was a long haul, but we were okay, and so were most of our babies – by babies, I’m referring to our pets.
Finding accommodations was a challenge.
Given the late hour, and the mass evacuations, there was not a hotel room to be had in town.
After almost two hours in line at the registration centre, we emerged with no idea of where to stay.
Anxiety began to build again.
We headed away from the crowds of people, towards Chase, hoping maybe a room was available farther east. No such luck.
Eventually, we pulled over in a small park and prepared to grab some sleep in the van.
The cats were evicted, put along the side of the van with a blanket to shelter them in their cages.
Judy spread out with her two dogs in the back of the van. My lab took a safe spot in the middle, and with a little extra padding added in, the Jack Russell and I cuddled up across the front seats.
I ended up staying in a motel in Kamloops until I was allowed to return home Aug. 8. I was a reporter with the now defunct Kamloops Daily News, and this was the best option, so I could continue to work while waiting to find out the fate of my home and my community.
Ultimately, while large sections of Barriere did burn in the fires, we escaped relatively unscathed. Only a tiny section of our forested property was hit by the flames. The worst we suffered was some interior water damage caused when fire crews graciously put sprinklers on our roof to try to keep fire from consuming our home, if it got nearby. Minor price to pay.
A few days later, I was evacuated again, this time staying the next four days with my friend, Judy, near Louis Creek.
Shortly after returning home the second time, Judy was evacuated and stayed with me for a number of days.
• Stay tuned for some more of Roxanne Hooper’s reflections from the 2003 wildfires