It has been a year like no other. The all-consuming event was a 2-month struggle with forest fires that threatened my home and caused almost every summer plan for every resident in west central British Columbia to be cancelled. Either because of the of the fire itself; the threat of fire and mass evacuations; or because both Highway 20 west of Williams Lake and a large part of Highway 97, which runs north/south through Williams Lake, were closed.
I was in Williams Lake on July 7th, the day dozens of fires erupted all at once, due to dry lightning storms. A steep forested hill borders the east side of town; around mid day I saw lighting strike the top of the hill several times. Within an hour huge columns of black smoke were roiling up. I was meeting a friend off the bus and had to wait in town until it arrived at 5.30. Fortunately the city fire was in the opposite direction in which we wanted to go. We lost no time in getting out of there.
It takes 3 and a half hours to drive home. The road goes up and down a couple of long hills then crosses the Fraser River before climbing a steep scarp onto the Chilcotin proper. The black city smoke plumed behind us – a hot clear sky spread ahead of us. But what was that smudge on the horizon? As we grew closer we could see a string of fires pouring smoke – one moment they were off to the side, then as the road turned, we were heading straight towards them. Would we get by or did the highway plunge through the middle? (No time to stop or to clear the fly splats off the windshield.)An hour from Williams Lake we were turned back by a cop. Road closed. The last thing I wanted to do was head back to Williams Lake. Other travellers were congregating in a rancher’s field about 30 km back from the fires. Someone there knew a way round via logging roads. “Its very rough and I won’t be going slow,” he said. We plunged after him into a maelstrom of dust and smoke, lurching and crashing in our guide’s wake. Other vehicles were coming the other way, all hurrying through, and we had to slew to the edge of the gravelly ditch as the road was barely wide enough for two vehicles. The dark smoke reared over and around us, compounding the gloom of the dust. We glimpsed flames at times – but then we were through and into the calm Chilcotin again. The towering piles of smoke still poured into the sky but they were behind us.
Two and a half hours to go and although we were so close to the longest day, it was late and it grew dark. The road was virtually empty (as it often is) and here there was no wind. It was a calm, beautiful evening. Then, just half an hour before home, in the moonless dark, I smelled smoke. Not a campfire or stovepipe smoke (there would not have been any in that area, anyway) but the unmistakable smell of burning living vegetation. A further ten minutes and we could see flames in the darkness on a ridge south of the road as we drove through downtown Kleena Kleene. They were small flames, though, simply a few small candles burning in the night. At home, 4 kms north, it was quiet, and the air was dark and sweet.
The next day we walked onto nearby hills and later drove back to downtown Kleena Kleene to see what was going on. The fires had spread a little and a single helicopter was buzzing around bucketing – ie squatting over a pool or a pond, collecting a bucket of water at the end of a long cable, then flying it to a target and letting the water go. There was a small fire to the north of the highway and this the pilot managed to put out. We could see no smoke but steam rose every time he dumped on it and there was never any more problem with that spot. This was a godsend. That hot spot was only 2 km away and there were no barriers between us – no bodies of water or roads – and it would have been a lot more serious for us if it had been allowed to burn. The other fires were bigger, though, and they spread in spite of the helicopter pilot’s efforts.
On day three we heard that Williams Lake was evacuated and also the places where we had been turned back from Williams Lake had been consumed by fire. Several properties had been destroyed. Some people had been away from home and had had no time to rescue anything. It was all so sudden. At home, the wind became stronger and soon black, out-of-control smoke was rolling from the fires. In 2004, I watched the smoke from a fire near Nuk Tessli that travelled 22 km in 2 days: the 4 kms between my place and the Kleena Kleene fire would count for very little if the wind was wrong, even though there was a river and the highway in between. I knew there was a strong possibility I would have leave and started packing. Sure enough, that evening the cops came by and told me I was under an Evacuation Order. This meant I was supposed to leave at once. Highway 20 was still open – huge quantities of water were being dumped on it to keep it viable for firefighters and evacuees, and now that Williams Lake had been evacuated, we were supposed to head to Prince George. (That’s 7 hours’ drive away.) Once we went through the barrier manned by cops, we would under no circumstances be allowed home. The Red Cross would provide accommodation for people and pets (and those who went to such places all said how well they had been treated.). But I wanted to go west. My friends had a cabin 2 and half hours away that I could use in the Bella Coola Valley. The cops didn’t like this – they wanted complete control of everyone. Fair enough – throughout this terrible firestorm not a single life was lost. But we who live in an area like this are not like city folk. A fire boss I talked to later said: “What if you try and run and there’s a tree across the road?” “I cut it out with a chain saw!” I retorted. He had the grace to look abashed. But their computer programs do not factor in 70-year-old ladies who habitually carry and use chain saws. The local cop was only doing his job. He had a form. He wrote down the name of my next of kin and my dentist – this last so they could identify my body by it’s teeth.
Of course one never knows what to take in situations like this. I was evacuated twice from Nuk Tessli because of fires and although I had a bit of warning, I had very little choice as everything had to fit into a plane – and both times other passengers and dogs took up a lot of the space. Here, however, I had 2 vehicles and the luxury of another driver. We loaded the van with dogs, a ton of food that I could eat (because of sensitivities I cannot find much to suit me in stores) and our personal stuff. Into the truck went a few items hard to replace like winter blankets and down coats, a few favourite and out of print plant books, and the like. The vast amount of memorabilia was abandoned as I did not know where to start with it. I hooked the trailer onto the pickup and loaded the ATV and chains, snowplough, my chain saws (except on that I kept in the van) propane tanks (even empty ones would explode), spare gas cans, and other similar items. They could be replaced but were expensive. Most residents here, myself included, had no fire insurance. Payments would be exhorbitent as we had no local fire fighting organization or equipment. The awful dread was losing the house. It had taken years to build and a lifetime of scrimping and saving to get it to it’s present state. The design and location of my home is very important to me. At 70 years’ old I would not have the time or energy to start again.
We left the truck at a friends’ place at Nimpo Lake (40 mins west) then drove down the Hill to the promised cabin. The friend I had met in Williams Lake now had to find a way to get home. We had planned to hike at Nuk Tessli, then I would have driven her back to Williams Lake to catch the bus east again. As it was, she had to catch two ferries from Bella Coola to Prince Rupert, then the train to Prince George, before she could get back onto the bus system again to go home to Saskatchewan. She had a big adventure all right – just not the one she thought she was going to have.
I would have been a great deal more stressed if I had been unable to monitor the fires on line. The BC Forestry service Wildfires of Note site was virtually useless. If there was any information it was usually days out of date. The USDA Forest service provided a Modis heat detection map updated every 3 hours, and the Google Earth fire overlay, both of which were very useful. (I am not giving links as the data is not current.) Even Drive BC, which detailed the road closures was helpful. I also checked several weather forecasts and “Windfinder” and could build up a pretty good picture of what was happening. I “never” do Facebook – but neighbours were surrounded by the Precipice Fire further west and they posted once or twice a day. It was usually the first site I looked at when I got up. It was a most dramatic series of writings and pictures. Never have I been as much a slave to the Internet as I was during those two months.Above is the USDA Modis site quite early on in the fires. The dark line across the ma- is Highway 20. Williams Lake is where Highway 20 meets the north south road of Highway 97. Yellow shows old fires, even ones that are out. Orange is cooler, and red is violent. The big blob near Alexis Creek is where the cops stopped us driving home from Williams Lake. The Kleena Kleene fire is west and a great deal smaller but still very active. My place is just north of the KK fire and on the east side of the road. The Precipice Fire is barely noticeable on this map, being a small yellow blob west of Anahim Lake.
The websites indicated that although the fires were spreading, they were not heading towards my place. It was damper and fairly smoke free in the Bella Coola Valley (although that was not always to be the case.) Firefighting helicoters rattled back and forth continuously on their way to the Precipice Fire. Four days later I took a chance and drove back up the sunny mountainside and into the thick pall of smoke that covered the area around Kleena Kleene. I spent 5 hours there watering the garden but the smoke meant I could see nothing and breathing was uncomfortable, so back down the Hill I went again. Locals who had suitable machinery (skidders, cats, water tanks etc, and the lone helicopter outfit) had banded together and were building fireguards where they could. The government frowns on this, but government resources were already far too stretched in the east where huge tracts were now evacuated and fires were now being fought on every front. It takes quite a long time to mobilize the enormously cumbersome fire-fighting machinery and we didn’t get any outside firefighters for a couple of weeks. Then they came from Eastern Canada, Australia, and even Mexico.
The pattern of going up and down the Hill happened several times and this is what saved my garden. Stuff in the greenhouse was cooked – I could not risk leaving doors and ventilators open while I was gone. Then the Precipice fire between me and Bella Coola started to get more dangerous. Police barriers were now erected on the highway in the west as well as the east. That was when the army came in. Several camps were set up along the Chilcotin, each containing several hundred firefighters. A friend saw them arrive at Nimpo. The minute they decanted from their vehicles they all got their cell phones out. But of course there is no reception here. One local firefighter said he even had to educate an incomer as to how to use a satellite phone. They came in great numbers but did not come prepared.
According to the evacuation laws, if I went through those barriers I would not be allowed home. Nothing for it but to stay put. I never unpacked the van once in 2 months. Sometimes the smoke was so bad I slept in masks (it was usually worse at night) and sometimes the roaring wind and towers of smoke heading straight towards me were absolutely terrifying. The days were brown. Many people commented that flowering plants did poorly this summer (peas etc.) and we all put it down to the all-pervading smoke.Ash and burned leaves fell often. I would have left at the drop of a hat at these times – if I’d been able to come home when things quieted down. The government said that it was their mandate to keep everyone safe – and indeed no lives were lost. But because of the ridiculous exclusion law I put myself in more danger than I would have done otherwise.
On one occasion I not only had everything packed but also tied the dogs up inside so all I had to do was grab their leads and go. I watched the websites and hoped. (Note that all maps have Kleena Kleene in the wrong place. It is actually about half way between the two lakes.). The Google Earth colouring is a little different. Yellow is older than 6 days, but not necessarily out. Orange is the last 12 – 24 hours, and red the last 12 hours. My place is about 2 and half kilometres from the nearest fire at this point.Scarey stuff indeed. But if I left I would not have been allowed home and I would have lost my garden. Worse, I would have been driven mad in some evacuation post. Even if I had driven on the highway within the barriers without a permit I would have been arrested.
And yet, permits were given to all sorts of people – even, at the end, to tourist fishermen going down to Bella Coola. The whole thing became an absolute farce. I emailed radio stations about the situation and was given three different phone interviews. One local shut-in resident referred to the situation as house arrest. I was at least able to hike onto the hills around my place and see what was going on (when the smoke allowed). (I wasn’t supposed to of course – but no one would know..…)
Well eventually the days got shorter and the nights damper and the fires, although still extensive, were more controllable. We were first allowed to go to town at the beginning of September – what terrible areas of destruction we could see further east. I have often been unable to go to a store for 2 months or more, but in this instance I had not planned for it and was beginning to get low on a few items. (Don’t forget, I couldn’t go to the local store, either.). Because I prefer to eat organic or specialized food (emmer instead of wheat, for instance) I get a lot of items sent by mail. But because of the Evacuation Order, mail deliveries were halted. (I would not have been able to drive to the post office anyway.) At least I had the garden!
It was the biggest fire season BC has ever had. Wild horses were burned, cattle were unaccounted for – or had to be destroyed because their feet were burned. As were animals such as moose. Many people lost their homes and livelihoods (all tourist businesses, for instance, were shut down: mind you, loggers earned tremendous money as firefighters; local resorts were stuffed with those who did not want to live in the camps. But that was only in the fire areas.) No one lost any structures in any of the western fires. I was out a bit of gas money and a great deal of time – but I could very well get a book out of the experience!
Even though we have now had fall rains and wet snow, there is still a miasma of smoke over the burned areas under certain inversion conditions. A serious fire further north a couple of years ago did not finally go out for 18 months. We all hope for a heavy snow winter to help alleviate the situation for next summer – so far it doesn’t look all that promising. If you want a blow-by-blow account of the whole adventure, start with the blog post FIRE! About 10 posts in all – and lots of pics!
As for the rest of the year – there were two other very exciting events, fortunately both were much happier. In June I headed to the Yukon for 3 weeks. I had never been and always wanted to go. I timed my trip for the rock/alpine flowers and was certainly not disappointed. I saw some absolute gems. I had rigged my van up for camping – and was plagued by rain, deluges, and snow! The Chilcotin had been green and wet when I left. In the three weeks I was away, despite the weather up north, it had turned crispy brown. No one could believe how fast it had dried up – much earlier than usual. A week after I came home, the wild fires erupted.
A month after the Evacuation Order was lifted I started on a book tour for my 12th book: Harry: A Wilderness Dog Saga. I – or rather Harry – has been working on it for 3 years. Harry and his sidekick Badger tell the stories of all the dogs in our pack since Lonesome – a span of about 35 years. Lonesome: Memoirs of a Wilderness Dog was by far and away my best seller and so I had a pretty good following for Harry. I took the dogs along – they were after all the stars of the show. Harry absolutely loved it!He smooged around all the slide show attendees, and we also spoke in bookstores. We were on the road for 5 weeks in the lower mainland, Vancouver Island, and the Okanagan, and thanks to a wonderful publicity person at Harbour Publishing, the tour was a great success and the book is selling very well.
END OF YEAR, 2016
In a word:
We’ve never had such a dreary, wet year. Dreary started early January although there was very little precipitation then, and late March it was dry and hot. In April we were already concerned about forest fires, and in the north of the province terrible ones consumed whole towns. But in the middle of that month, it rained. The newly-planted seeds (too early, really) simply sat there. It remained cold and wet all summer right through to November – indeed this month of December has seen more sun than almost the whole of the year put together.
There were occasionally sunny days; sometimes we had three of them in a row – and it was during these bouts of sunshine that I snatched days in the mountains. My new alpine playground is Perkins Peak. The summit is visible from my yard.I had known that people drive and ATV up to not far below the 9,000+-ft summit, but had never figured out the way to negotiate the maze of logging roads. However, with instructions from a friend I finally co-erced my pickup up a very bouldery road right to the tree line, which is at an altitude of around 7,000 ft, way higher than Nuk Tessli. The roads were installed up there to service a couple of gold mines (now defunct). On my first trip, in late June, the flowers were the best.Higher up, there was still a lot of snow about.The second trip, I tried for the summit, but my knees would not take the boulders up the last stretch. (I got to the top of the snow patch on the right. My volunteer hiked to the summit alone.)The views were nonetheless spectacular. Looking north and west I could see many mountains that were familiar with me; those near Lonesome Lake, Nuk Tessli, and my current home. More than half my life was spread before me. On the third trip, I left the current wwoofers to make their own way to the top and I visited the second, lower mine. It was a blasted landscape with very little growth, but it had it’s own stark beauty.As always, I sought the tiny scraps of flowering vegetation, but they were nowhere near as spectacular as the Nuk Tessli flower meadows.As for the rest of the summer, we worked in the rain.It deluged at the Anahim Lake Stampede. The arena was flooded.
The garden did well, though.And we had some spectacular rainbows!Last year I signed an agreement to sell the lower property to Jade and Ryan. I did not receive the bulk of the money until this year. First thing I bought was – a washing machine!It is installed in my new bathroom. A friend came and helped with the plumbing and tiling, and I had a couple of excellent volunteers to do the carpentry work. There is still no running hot water, only cold, and I don’t have a flush toilet, but it has a sink and a drain and a tiled area where you stand and throw water over yourself for a shower. (Water heated on the stove.)
But the real spending happened when the main part of the money came through in December.On my second trip to Perkins Peak, we met a couple of ATVers, who saved me a footsore hours’ walk on the stoney road back to my truck. If I had been able to drive to the end of the road I might have been able to reach the summit.I decided an ATV was now the way to go. There are a lot of logging roads that my knees would take days to walk, but using the ATV I can get to some spectacular places to hike and also carry camping gear. It will give me a whole new lease of mountain life.
You will see also that my ATV has a plough. For years I’ve had difficulty in organizing the ploughing of my road, and I will still have to hire someone with a big machine if we get a heavy dump, but now I have ploughing independence.Other news: Likely you will remember the best seller: Lonesome – Memoirs of a Wilderness Dog. If you liked that book, you will be pleased to hear that a current dog, Harry, plus his sidekick, Badger, have now written: Harry – A Wilderness Dog Saga. It is the story of all the dogs since Lonesome. A contract has been signed and Harry has been contacted by an editor – this work will start in the new year and the book will be published September 2017.I did not go to Nuk Tessli this year – no one booked and I got too busy anyway – but we have set up the dates for next year: July 14 – 18th. If you are interested in coming and want to have a preview of what to expect, check out the Nuk Tessli page on my blog.
All that remains now is to wish you the best health and happiness in the coming year. May your summers be warm and sunny,And your winters cold and dry.
The news that shaped the whole season was the sale of the lower property, the one by the river where I lived when I first came to Ginty Creek in 2006. In the middle of February of 2015, when the snow was rotting due to the abnormal warm weather, a young couple with two small children stayed for a day or two, slung their kids onto their backs, and wallowed through the knee-deep sloppy snow, tramping around the property and making plans. The idea of neighbours living so close (half a kilometre away) was not a particularly happy one for me, but my house and my life were stalled through lack of money. I am also getting older – 68 this year – and, whereas I am perfectly healthy right now, I have some physical limitations, and running my house is still quite labour intensive (wood heating and cooking; no running hot water; no washing machine or shower; having to brush snow off the solar panels etc) and I want to be able to stay here until I am at least 99. Having reliable people close by might make a big difference. And, if I have to have neighbours, I don’t think I could choose better. Jade and Ryan, Herb and Wren, will not move in full time until the spring of 2016.
The cabin beside the river being no longer available to me for volunteers and other guests, meant that I needed other accommodation. Jade and Ryan are good carpenters (before she had babies, Jade made fine furniture for a living) and part of the payment that we agreed upon was for them to provide and erect a yurt.
I had to make the deck: now that I had a bit of money, I could spend it on such projects, and I had a whole slew of volunteers helping me to finish them. Only one batch of three were duds, the rest were pretty good and some were quite talented. It did mean, however, that I was working very hard myself and also providing meals for all these hungry young people. But we got a lot done. We renewed the deck in front of my house. making it wider and higher…
…and I eventually built on it a greenhouse in front of the door.
It still gets too cold at night to use it for anything but drying clothes at the moment, but it keeps the snow and winter winds away from the main door and makes a hot place to sit when the sun is shining, even if it is in the -20Cs outside.
Another project that volunteers helped with was my first serious attempt at a garden. Most of the time I have lived at Ginty Creek I spent the summers at Nuk Tessli: the first summer here I was recovering from a knee replacement so couldn’t do much. (It, by the way, was pretty much a waste of time. I am just as lame as I was before the operation; can no longer kneel or get in and out of a canoe etc.) I made a great many mistakes, but the garden, as far as I was concerned, was a success. The big problems was getting enough water to it. Despite a reasonable snow cover last winter, when it melted, the ground underneath was so dry that the runoff disappeared in an instance. Temperatures in June and early July reached into the mid 30Cs day after day. My well has only a limited amount of water so I had to ration it carefully. At first I tried to irrigate an area that blows dust, and grow clover in there, but my water ran out so I had to concentrate on the edible garden. Only hardy stuff can grow here outside – even with +30C temps, it often froze at night – but I could scrounge greens, even if they were brittle with frost, right until the end of October.
I made several trips down The Hill to Bella Coola, including a memorable very wet boat ride to see the bears,and guided for 10 days at Nuk Tessli. (We have, by the way, fixed 2016’s dates. 20-24th July for the first tour, a second 5-day tour following immediately afterwards if there are enough bookings.)A completely different experience was to witness a First Nations ceremony at Chilco Lake to name a friend’s 12-person canoe. I even managed to get a short and very exhilarating paddle in it. Not sure if the dogs appreciated the honour!I also hiked up to flower meadows on Potato Mountain, which boast quite a diffferent mix from those at Nuk Tessli.There were the usual year’s events: the cattle drive party at the Precipice….…the Tatla Lake Gymkhana …and the Anahim Lake Rodeo.Next year, with money worries out of the way and fewer building projects to pursue (although there is still plenty to do), I should finally have more time to enjoy the area more thoroughly. All these events are of course detailed in the blog.
As for books – Harry was supposed to be putting together his memoirs as a sequel to Lonesome last winter, but he got kinda lazy and only part of the first draft is done. Harry will have to seriously buckle down to work this winter, which I promise he will do – right after all the Holiday socializing!
I have, however, put together an ebook of Common Nuk Tessli Wildflowers. Here is the picture for the cover page. If you want a virtual tour through Nuk Tessli’s alpine ridges and wonderful meadows (90 pages, over 200 photographs), here is your chance – for only $10.95! And you don’t have to swat mosquitos while you are doing it!(If you read this right away, the means for downloading this will not be set up. I will write a post as soon as it is available.)