By Anne Patterson, Freelance Journalist
Special to the Barriere Star Journal
My day on August 6, 2021, began at 4 a.m. with a call from my daughter in Ontario: “You’ve got to get out. Now.”
The White Rock Lake wildfire, which had been stalking our community near Kamloops, was moving fast and was dangerously close. While we were asleep, an order had been issued to immediately evacuate our farm. Normally, an evacuation alert is issued first to give people time to prepare to leave. In our case, there was no time for that.
Kamloops is the epicentre of three major, aggressive wild fires that are causing chaos across this region and spreading into others. While firefighters from across Canada, and from Mexico and Australia, are working to save our homes, a small band of volunteer livestock haulers is trying to save the thousands of animals at risk from the fire.
Farmers, ranchers and rural residents in the southern half of the province were facing the same urgent problems we were: where can we take our animals, and how are we going to get them there?
The farm we had arranged for our three horses and three goats to evacuate to was also now under an evacuation order. They had nowhere to go. I started posting pleas on Facebook for someone to haul our horses and goats and for a place to take them.
Before long, offers of help started rolling in. There was room in a barn at the fairgrounds in Barriere. just over an hours’ drive away, for both the goats and horses.
In the meantime, ranchers in several regions were appealing for help to bring their herds of cattle down from their summer range in the mountains before the fire caught up with them. Convoys of livestock trailers, driven by other ranchers expert at herding cattle, fanned out to bring them to shelter. Hay for displaced animals is being donated from all over BC.
Large ranches unaffected by the fires opened their gates to many of them. Now, a number of those ranches are under threat and the livestock they sheltered are being ferried to secondary locations.
While wildfire managers were making terrible decisions about which communities they could save and how to allocate stretched resources, many rural landowners were making painful decisions about which animals to leave behind.
When you have cared for animals – whether they are cows, alpacas or horses – day in, day out, for years, you form a deep bond with them. They feed us, protect us, give us purpose and, to some, make life worth living.
Our elderly horse, Bill, has been part of our family for 20 years. He worries more than he used to, and can’t see very well.
We have slowly begun to accept that we may lose our home before this unprecedented wildfire season ends. But whatever happens, we will never, ever abandon Bill. That’s exactly how our neighbours feel about their geese, chickens, llamas, and pigs.
A couple we had never met, who were a part of the citizen-organized group of volunteer livestock haulers, came to help us move the horses. The horses loaded calmly but the goats panicked and took off up the hillside. The father-daughter duo of experienced goat handlers who showed up to take them spent an hour with us rounding them up. Even as the fire advanced towards us, and the heat and smoke became oppressive, they didn’t give up. Finally, the goats were squeezed into a canopy on the truck and we were out, heading to Barriere.
The over 3,000 townspeople of Barriere, many of whom had experienced a devastating wildfire in 2003, treated the evacuees with great kindness. They remember what it was like to see a life’s work burn. They opened up their fairgrounds, with multiple empty barns, to displaced animals.
Volunteers at the fairgrounds had already tucked our horses and goats into their stalls for the night, and fed and watered them by the time we arrived in the dark. We tried to set up the tent we had grabbed as we left. That didn’t go well. So we decided to sleep in our trucks, parked in a field. In the morning, my poor husband wondered aloud how a 70-year old retired lawyer, who worked hard and who has lived a well-planned life, ended up temporarily homeless, sleeping in a truck with a smelly dog. I reminded him we had both decided to retire to the country.
One volunteer at the fairground, noting my dishevelled appearance, told me that evacuees could shop at the local thrift store for free. A large truck appeared one day, stocked with pet food donated by a group in Vancouver.
We got to know the other wildfire refugees at the fairgrounds, camped out in their RV’s and tents. One family, consisting of grandparents, parents and a small child, had watched their house burn to the ground before fleeing with nothing more than their clothes and six horses. Their little boy had no toys to play with, so the good folk of Barriere donated a pile.
They are going to re-build. Their neighbour, whose house was spared because of the way the wind blew that day, has agreed to take them in, horses and all.
Eventually, a manager at a local motel found us a room. He pretended not to notice the 100-lb livestock guardian dog hiding behind our luggage.
Despite our different circumstances, all of the evacuees had some things in common: we love our animals, we love our land, and we love the life we lead. We know very well that our existence is fragile: our livelihoods, and sometimes our lives, depend on the weather. But the rewards of rural life, including the freedom and proximity to the natural world, outweigh the risk.
Although many of us live in somewhat remote locations, we are definitely not alone.
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