The trip to town was an emotional one. Not because of my new-found freedom, but because of the memories that were triggered. The last day I was in Williams Lake was July 7th, when BC erupted into flames. It’s a little hard to pick things out on this map, dated August 26th. Yellow is Evacuation Alert, Pink is Evacuation Order, and the red lines are the perimetres of the fires. The Precipice Fire is on the extreme left centre, the Kleena Kleene fires south east of it. The little brown line of highway 20 wanders east and goes through the middle of the Hanceville fire (note the yellow corridor) before it reaches Williams Lake. The jumble of fires further north have more or less joined and are now known as the Plateau Fire, which is the biggest fire that BC has ever recorded. It is estimated that 11,000 cows are still unaccounted for in that area. Some may have found refuge in unburned areas, for the fires are by no means complete. Huge amounts of hay have been destroyed, either in the field or already baled. I encountered two huge flat decks loaded with bales on the road; I heard later that Alberta farmers have donated some to the Chilcotin.
It was dark when I left (where has the summer gone?) and the Kleena Kleene area was too full of smoke to see anything. I had not been east of Kleena Kleene since the fires began and was relieved to enter clear air just past Tatla Lake, when I was treated to a spectacular sunrise that lasted a good part of an hour.Soon, however, the smoke built up again as I approached the Hanceville Fire. And just below the reserve east of Anahim Lake, were the first burned trees.I passed the point where we had been turned back when we tried to leave town on 7th July.The fire had lapped right up to the lookout.And had crossed the road. Multiple power poles had been damaged and needed to be replaced.A few kilometres past the lookout was the road we hurtled along to get around the fire,Now looking very benign.Further east, however, the Riske Creek fire was still very active.I saw many photographic compositions as I drove along but had to concentrate on my driving as I met a whole convoy of vehicles going to fight the fire. Civilian pickups and SUV’s were heavily sprinkled with massive lumbering army trucks bristling with protruberences. I never even got a photo! Past the worst of the Riske Creek fire was a rough sign on the highway.I remember standing on this part of the road hitch-hiking once when my vehicle had broken down. Here are the army tents.And the civvy tents. Not the scorched hill behind them.Further east was Beecher’s dam, a spot I have often stopped at to use the outhouses and give the dogs a run. No sign of the outhouses now.But of course the most heartbreaking part of the journey was to see the destruction of people’s property.There had been a business and a home here. A landmark on the way to town. I saw at least 3 places that were destroyed. One belongs to the man who has towed my vehicle to town on occasion. His son and wife have taken over the business and they drove there on July 7th to see what they could do to save it. They managed to keep the house, I think, but everything around was destroyed, including a wreckers yard that I hadn’t realized existed – it had been discreetly tucked behind the tidy house. The son and wife said that when the fire reached the old cars, the gas tanks exploded one by one. There was nothing left of a ranch nearby. The owners of that place had managed to keep the house safe while the barns caught fire during the first eruption, but when the second major flare-up happened, they had to run to the highway and watch their house burn.
The destroyed place that I knew best was Lee’s Corner.On the junction of the road to Chilko Lake and the Nemiah Valley, it has long been a convenient stopping place for a lot of travellers. I can really not eat the kind of food that they produce any more – burgers, fries, and so on, but the baking available there was legendary. Even though I find sugar and wheat hard to digest, I could never resist the best carrot cake in the world. The baker was the female part of the partnership, and she was very shy. When I complimented her on the carrot cake, she looked down modestly and thanked me – then said: “But, you know, I actually hate making it.”
When my friend and I were turned back just east of their place on July 7th, all the stranded travellers congregated in a field. Among them were the couple that owned the restaurant. They had been to Williams Lake to stock up on supplies. Their place had not yet burned and they planned to wait until the cool of the night when they hoped the fire would die down and let them go back and rescue a few things. All they had with them was their little dog. And that, plus a truck full of pop and chips, was all they came away with.
They were of retirement age and had been hoping to sell for a while, so once the shock is over, they would be able to come to terms with that part of their lives – they were suitably insured. But nothing can replace their home of 20 years. Other people had time to grab stuff – I still have a considerable amount stored well away from the fires – but they had nothing.When you see the green trees behind, it is almost as though the fire targeted the place.
Behind the concrete blocks in the above photo was a rickety old wooden deck (to the right was a store) and behind the deck was the restaurant. The baker always filled the blocks with flowers in the summer, and hummingbirds whizzed around the feeder. The hummers have long gone – from my place as well – they usually leave mid August. But the flowers were still blooming.Williams Lake was crystal clear. Here is the hill east of town where I saw the lightning strike several times and big black clouds of smoke rear up. The fire never came down to the town itself, although it crossed the road further south.At home, I always leave the van doors and windows open as it stays cooler. In town of course I locked it – and could not believe the reek of ancient smoke every time I opened the door!
I left town not long after midday. A bit of wind had cleared a lot of the smoke and after a while I drove through clean air. But close to Tatla Lake, I could see the smoke from the Kleena Kleene complex fires. (The short forest on either side of Highway 20 in the picture below is growth that has happened after a 2003 burn.)
Tatla Lake is the tiny straggle of barely seen buildings on the right middle distance. It is 40 km from my turn-off.A couple of months ago we would have freaked to see a puffer such as this. Now it is the norm. You can just make out a helicopter silhouetted agains a lighter (clear-cut) hill to the right of this part of the fire. It is picking up water for its bucket. It is amazing what tiny bodies of water can be used. The helicopter doesn’t change shape, of course, but the movement it makes as it dips for water always reminds me of a broody hen fluffing out her feathers before she settles herself on her eggs.The above picture was at the point where I first smelled smoke coming home on July 7th. It was almost dark and there had been no sign of the fire until we had driven another 10 km. It was high on the hill behind the smoke that is occurring in the picture below. Because it had been so dark, neither I nor my friend had tried to take a photo.The fire has roared back and forth so often through this area, it is amazing to think that there is still stuff to burn. The hay fields are just below the smoke. These bales are newly made.And here is the farmer raking another patch. Life goes on.In the mean time, the fire has climbed high up the flanks of Mt Nogwon.And the smoke from the Big Stick Lake Fire lies in a slab across the road – fortunately just beyond my place.There are fireguards everywhere. Some are just the width of a vehicle but the really serious ones are as wide as a freeway.The heavy machines have chewed up the road. The scars from these guards will last longer than many of those of the fires.When I arrived home, it was to find that my bladder and sprinklers had been taken away. The structural protection crew must have been in and out early, because when I drove my road at 4.00:PM, there was a #$%^ tree on the road. Good job I was carrying the chain saw.