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‘Everything Is Burning and Your House Is Gone’

We spent 10 days talking to survivors of this summer’s wildfires. Here’s what we learned.

Michelle Gamage 14 Dec 2021The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

The burnt-black forest is silent. A wind blows through, pushing chilly October fingers around the charred remains of trees. But it doesn’t make a sound — there are no leaves to rustle on the trees, no small branches to sway, no bushes on the ground.

The snap as my co-worker sets up his tripod makes me jump. I can see him through the remains of trees, about 100 metres away and up a hill. He’s positioning his camera to try and capture the devastation. I’m holding a recorder, similarly wanting to capture the eeriness of the forest. But there’s nothing to record except the strange crunch my hiking boots make as I walk across the chalky forest floor.

Everything smells like a soggy campfire. The sky is grey. Farther down the mountain there’s a scattering of bright-orange pine trees. The fire’s heat cooked their needles, but the flames didn’t reach their trunks. I’ve been seeing this same strange orange on the periphery of all of the burns, on deciduous and evergreen trees alike. I’m told that means they’re likely dead and will have to be cut down.

This is the aftermath of the White Rock Lake fire. BC Wildfire Service says the fire was discovered July 13, 2021, cause unknown, and was still smouldering in parts of the province as the first snow started to fall in late October. It devoured over 100 homes as it ripped through the Okanagan Indian Band reserve, Killiney Beach, Estamont — communities on the northwest shore of Lake Okanagan, about 40 minutes north of Kelowna — and Monte Lake, another 40-minute drive to the west, along the highway towards Kamloops.

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Map courtesy of BC Wildfire Service.

The White Rock Lake fire was the third biggest of 1,630 fires in B.C. this year, where wildfires displaced nearly 33,000 people, and killed a husband and wife.

The White Rock Lake fire was a rank-six wildfire — one that B.C. categorizes as “a blow up or conflagration” exhibiting “extreme and aggressive fire behaviour.” It burned 83,342 hectares and caused at least $77 million in insured damage, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

But the true cost is much higher — a lot of people in remote, off-grid or Indigenous communities can’t access insurance.

Insurance companies are often hesitant or unwilling to insure buildings in remote or Indigenous communities, says Jason Thistlethwaite, an associate professor at the school of environment, enterprise and development at the University of Waterloo.

They’re conservative businesses that don’t want to offer coverage when they think they’ll have to eventually pay out, he says. So companies will refuse to insure homes built far away from emergency services or infrastructure, or in areas more prone to environmental disasters like flooding or wildfires. That includes many Indigenous communities due to the legacy of colonialism, Thistlethwaite says.

During 10 days in the Interior, I meet six people who didn’t have insurance and lost their homes.

I’m here with photographer Gideon Mendel to talk with people who were affected by wildfires, and ask what their lives are like months after the fire passed through.

We meet people who are furious with governments’ response to the fires, critiquing the lack of assistance, muddled emergency responses and a failure to take action to prevent wildfires. We meet people who openly cry as they look at the soggy heap of twisted metal and ash that was once their home. We meet people who are putting one foot in front of the other, working to rebuild their homes, neighbourhoods and communities one piece at a time.

In the forest, the fire charred trees and ate down into the forest floor where it burnt stumps, leaving strange holes with octopus-like arms stretching off in different directions. When it found communities, it devoured entire neighbourhoods.

‘They lied to us’

“It was really hard that night,” says Tiffany Wilson, who is from the Syilx Nation, a member of the Okanagan Indian Band and a mother of three. She lost her home in the fire.

“Everyone was listening to the BC Wildfire radio,” she says. “Knowing the firefighters were in this area, hearing them say ‘there’s cars back here, we need to get out.’ That meant it was in one of two places, either my kid’s dad’s backyard, or ours. And it was here.”

Four generations of her family lived in the home, and it would have soon been five — Wilson’s oldest daughter is pregnant.

Now a blue metal construction fence runs around what remains of the home — a chimney that feels absurdly tall and straight amidst the wreckage.

Tiffany’s extended family had built their homes within walking distance of each other on a lush sprawling property originally cleared by her grandfather and his mother. When the fire came through, it destroyed multiple family homes — her aunt’s next door, her cousins’, and her uncle’s just up the road.

Her 81-year-old grandfather, William Wilson, has lived on the property for 75 years. He wears a white cowboy hat and a heavy black aviator coat. Like Tiffany, William is a member of the Okanagan Indian Band and Syilx Nation. They speak the nsyilxcən language, part of Salish language family.

William, who lived under the same roof as Tiffany, is a farmer who mainly grows hay for feed. He has often kept horses and cattle, though he’d sold his cows a couple years before the fire.

“I’ve seen fires like this before, but never this close. And there’s never been any homes burnt before from the fires,” he says. “This fire season was worse, there was a long dry period in the spring with no rain. Last time we had something like that was ’63 or ’65. The ground was just tinder dry.”

On the Okanagan Indian Band reserve, the White Rock Lake fire damaged 12 homes and destroyed another 10. It also took out Little Kingdom, a convenience store and community hub that sold fresh baked goods, groceries, clothes, tools, gardening accessories, gas and cannabis — all under one roof.

William took some clothes with him when he evacuated, but left everything else he owned behind. Like everyone else we met, William didn’t realize the fire would get so close to his house — let alone turn it to dust.

William lost family photos, his boats and a motorhome. He lost saddles, gear, skates and clothes. He lost his tractors and his generator. His horses, grazing in the field next to us as we talk, thankfully survived.

William Wilson has lived on his property for 75 years. He’s seen similar hot, dry fire seasons but never fires that destroyed as many houses before. A lot of the things he lost in the fire, he’ll never be able to replace, like saddles made by expert saddle makers who have since passed away. Photo by Gideon Mendel.

The next day, we drive a half-hour from a hotel in Vernon back to the family property with Tiffany’s uncle, Henry Wilson, who is also a member of the Okanagan Indian Band and Syilx Nation. Henry has agreed to come with us to see his house — the first time he’s been back since the fire. As we drive towards his home, we play the Doors — Henry’s Doors collection, which he took with him during the evacuation, is now one of the few belongings he has left.

As we get closer to the property, the morning’s fog suddenly gives way to sunlight. Fall colours of brilliant yellows and reds blush across the rolling landscape, covered in trees here and grassland there. Farm stands dot the roadside, offering heaping bags of crisp apples, zingy salad mixes and sugary late-season grapes. Even the cows grazing in the wide-open fields have a view of the glittering Lake Okanagan.

A dog comes to meet us as we pull into Henry’s driveway. Henry steps out and calls to her, but he’s wearing a mask and she gives a nervous bark.

“Daisy, it’s me, you goofball,” he says, pulling his mask down.

Daisy, who hasn’t seen Henry since the fire, attempts to jump up and lick his face, run figure eights between his legs, and bury her face in his hands all at once.

“What do you think Daisy? What did they do to our house?” he asks her. “I know, I know. They took our house.”

Henry is angry because the fire wasn’t put out when it first started and was smaller. He’s angry because he was told if he stayed to fight the fire no firefighters would come to his property to help, angry because he was told sprinklers would be set up around his house — but the sprinklers never arrived.

“They lied to us,” he says. “They said we were here too long. ‘Oh if you’re here we can’t do it.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll leave then so you can set it up.’ But they never set it up.”

Tiffany says when Okanagan Indian Band members tried to protect their property, the RCMP told them they could leave on their own, or in the back of a police car.

“I’d think they’d want the extra support more than anything,” she says. “Everyone had a safety plan and knew when the fire got to a certain point they’d get out. But they were all told they have to leave.”

Brandy Louis scoffs at the memory when she recalls that day.

Louis is an Okanagan Indian Band member who had been driving her mother, 63-year-old Karen Louis, to pick up groceries and other essentials in nearby Vernon. When the pair tried to go home, she told The Tyee, RCMP officers told them there was an evacuation order and they had closed the roads — no one was allowed in.

The blockade was set up within 100 metres of Karen’s house, and eventually Brandy convinced an officer to let her take her mother, and her mother’s roommate home. Both are Okanagan Indian Band members. Brandy wanted to help her mother unload her groceries and pack a suitcase.

When it was time to leave, Brandy says her mother’s roommate wouldn’t go. And the RCMP officer told him he had to leave voluntarily, or police would force him.

Closing the road limited the ability of Elders and seniors to leave, she says.

“That means there’s no access in. My mom doesn’t drive, how is she supposed to get out of there? She’s blind, deaf and old,” Brandy says.

The officer in charge of the Vernon North Okanagan RCMP, Supt. Shawna Baher, says RCMP officers were not given orders to forcibly remove people.

“There was no hardline regarding persons leaving zones,” Baher said in an email.

RCMP officers would have told Okanagan Indian Band members about the evacuation order and advised them that first responders would not be able to come back for them if the “situation deteriorated,” Baher says, adding the Ministry of Children and Family Development would be involved if young children were also staying.

“Under no circumstances were persons removed — if there was someone who said they had no way out, they could have been told that the RCMP officer could take them,” Baher said.

Next door to Henry Wilson’s house is the house of his nephew, Dan Wilson, who studied law and served as past Chief of the Okanagan Indian Band. He is currently an Okanagan Indian Band councillor, but speaks with us as a private citizen affected by the fire, not in an official capacity. Daisy the dog lives with him.

The fire turned Henry’s house to rubble just 10 metres away from Dan’s house, which mostly escaped damage — other than siding on one corner of the home, which was burnt down to the insulation layer. It’s a sign of how lucky he is, Dan says, and how hard his band’s fire crews fought to save his house.

Like Henry, Dan was told the area would be covered by sprinklers. Nobody told him when that plan changed. He shows us the ribbons firefighters tied to his front gate, which signal to fire crews where to put sprinklers.

After the fire, Dan was told the area had been reassessed after the Wilsons left; a decision was made that a fire truck would provide more efficient protection than sprinklers.

“But that’s apparently not the case judging by the damage and how the fire got away,” he adds. “There was a lack of communication between the BC Wildfire Service and band members.”

Indigenous Services Canada will help fund the rebuilding of the houses that were burnt on the reserve, Dan says.

But the Wilsons are worried the process won’t be smooth.

“People from [Indigenous Services Canada] don’t realize a lot of these homes housed more than one family,” Tiffany says. “We had four generations living in our house, soon to be five. We’re only getting two temporary homes here.”

Henry was told he’d be in temporary housing back on his property by the end of November. He’s hoping they won’t need to turn to the courts to make the federal government follow through on its commitments.

“Climate change is caused by industry, they should be paying more to clean everything up — they did it all,” Henry says as he looks at the heap that once was his sturdy home.

“They make corporations, then they hide behind them. Can’t touch a corporation with the law,” he adds.

“I think the laws of nature should come before everything.”

After losing his home in the White Rock Lake fire, Henry Wilson had to live in a hotel in Vernon. This was the first time he’d returned to see the damage — and seen Daisy (pictured) since the fire. Photo by Gideon Mendel.

‘A Wave of Fire’

Thirteen kilometres down the road from the Wilsons, heading north towards Vernon, Sandra Eberle runs On The Way, a food truck with a cheerfully decorated patio and an outdoor pizza oven.

In between cooking, taking orders and chatting up everyone who stops to order her food, Sandra introduces us to her husband Charles Eberle, and Russell Cadotte, a Saulteaux Lakota man who has called the Okanagan home his entire life.

Charles Eberle and Cadotte help fire crews during the summer by building the expansive water infrastructure needed to fight a wildfire. They’re avid amateur photographers and their stories from the summer are punctuated with pictures on their phones — blood-red mid-day skies; dozens of firetrucks screaming down smokey highways; pumping stations set up on the side of sparkling lakes. A video captures the size of the wall of smoke that came off the White Rock Lake fire — it takes up half the sky.

The plume of smoke coming off the White Rock Lake fire and the helicopter creates a David versus Goliath feeling. Video by Charles Eberle.
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The noon-day skies stained blood-red by the smoke. Picture by Charles Eberle.

Eberle describes the process of using pumping stations to send the water necessary to fight the fires up steep hills before it can be used to fill firetrucks or other containers. Then there are sprinklers set up to protect homes to consider. It’s a logistical nightmare with huge amounts of co-ordination required — it’d be bad to burst a hose when the flames are headed your way.

“The government really needs to respect local knowledge when fighting fires,” Cadotte adds. “There’s people who spend almost their entire lives in the bush around here — hunters, you know. They know what trees grow where, what the land is like, where the water is. The government should work with them out in the backwoods, but doesn’t.”

Everyone we speak with praises the efforts of the crews on the ground fighting the fires — emphasizing their bravery, and worrying about the trauma fire crews experience while facing down infernos that are consuming their hometowns, or even their own homes.

But when management doesn’t involve locals, it can slow down firefighting efforts in remote areas, Charles and Cadotte say.

BC Wildfire Service hires crews for its six fire centres across B.C. every spring, mainly from the local areas so that fire crews “are familiar with their local fire centre’s terrain, tree types and fire behaviour,” said Briana Hill, BC Wildfire Service fire information officer in an email. The service also hires local equipment operators, local liaison officers and works closely with local Indigenous fire crews, Hill says.

Hill adds that during the White Rock Lake fire, local industry and equipment operators were used to help build roads so fire crews could do “wildfire suppression.”

For her part, Sandra Eberle is critical of both insurance companies and the inadequate housing on the reserve.

“We don’t have proper homes for Natives out here. These houses don’t have a proper furnace, drinkable water — nothing! It’s bullshit,” she says.

“People have to rough it out here in the winter, and now with the heat in the summer too because houses don’t have any insulation. And the water? Hah! You wouldn’t even feed it to your dog. There’s no gas either.”

Insurance companies, she says, often decline to insure the homes as a result of the condition they’re in.

Rob Bouchard, whose home was off-grid in Monte Lake, wasn’t able to get insurance either. His 80-acre property is off a steep, winding, rough road that goes several kilometres up a hillside.

The White Rock Lake fire destroyed his home, two buildings, car park and every tree on his 80-acre property. Now, all that’s left is a burnt cement foundation. The trees that ringed the home, shielding the property from the wind, are gone. The land tumbles steeply into the wide valley of Monte Lake. The view is of farmland down below, and fire-charred hillside. Bouchard wasn’t able to find an insurance company that would sell him insurance for his home, which he moved into six years ago.

“I said, ‘alright, I guess we’re on our own’ — not expecting a crazy wildfire like this to come through,” he says.

There are a lot of reasons companies refuse to insure a home, the University of Waterloo’s Thistlethwaite says — everything from credit rating to the quality of the house and how likely it is the house will be damaged in the future, as well as how likely it is that a homeowner will continue paying for insurance and ownership. This can complicate insurance for some Indigenous communities, where property isn’t owned individually but by band councils, he adds. And it’s complicated for homeowners like Bouchard, whose home is a fairly remote cabin conversion completed without permits.

Climate change is also changing who can access insurance.

“A major risk of climate change is that insurance becomes a luxury for the rich,” Thistlethwaite says. That’s bad news for remote and Indigenous communities, which are generally poorer and more exposed to climate change than large cities.

To prevent that from happening Canada could explore alternative insurance models, like public, group or parametric insurance, which pays out when a predefined event happens rather than when damage occurs. Another possibility is public insurance that could cover remote areas for claims higher than, say, $20,000 in damages, Thistlethwaite says. Private insurance companies might be more willing to cover remote areas if they know they'd only be on the hook for $20,000.

Bouchard remained for as long as he could on the night of the fire, staying behind to do everything he could think of to protect his home after his wife, kids and pets had left. Then the fire, from over the ridge, spat out a massive plume of smoke and, “everyone I know started phoning or texting me saying, ‘you gotta get out of there. Leave. Now.’”

Once he was safely in the valley below, he turned to see the wildfire appear. It looked like a wall of flames, Bouchard says, at least three kilometres long. He watched his home security camera from his phone that showed the fire rush past his house. Then sparks appeared inside. Then the feed cut out.

Bouchard says he was never contacted directly by anyone in government — no firefighters, no search-and-rescue workers — before or after the fire. The only reason his family knew to evacuate was because of a blue ribbon tied to the gate at the end of their driveway. They had to look up what it meant.

The day after the fire he and some neighbours illegally returned to the area to fight small fires still smouldering in the community.

A spokesperson for the Thompson-Nicola Regional District said the White Rock Lake fire destroyed 32 primary dwellings in the region, with most of the damage happening in Monte Lake. The remote community has about 120 addresses but not all of those are homes, the spokesperson noted.

Bouchard says that without community efforts, 30 to 50 per cent more homes would have burned.

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In Monte Lake, locals are angry with the government for the losses they suffered during the wildfire. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

People in Monte Lake are angry with the government. Near the community’s post office/liquor store sits a shipping container with “government arson” spray painted on the side. Outside the post office a notice is tacked to the community flyer board calling on residents to join a class action lawsuit against the government.

The BC Wildfire Service’s Hill says 40 local residents were paid for their firefighting work in Monte Lake.

“The White Rock Lake wildfire was an incredibly dynamic incident, impacting multiple communities,” Hill said in an email to The Tyee. “When it is safe and possible to do so, the BC Wildfire Service strives to support local responses to wildfire suppression. However, due to the emergency nature of wildfire events, decisions are sometimes made before relevant contractual agreements can be completed.”

Bouchard spent the summer unsuccessfully trying to find a contractor and on this day an icy rain is falling, soon to be snow. The whole family wants to be able to stay on their property again as soon as they can, so he’s going to build their home himself.

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Rob Bouchard’s retirement plan just went up in smoke. His 80-acre property was logged 30 years ago and he was planning on selectively logging the land in another 30 years to create a retirement fund. His neighbour, with 100 acres, had similar plans. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

100 Firetrucks

In Killiney Beach, a small community on the shores of Lake Okanagan 20 minutes south of the Okanagan Indian Band reserve, we join Alex Van Bruksvoort, the on-call fire chief for North Westside Fire Rescue.

Killiney Beach is part of the Regional District of Central Okanagan, where roughly 3,000 people were evacuated from 1,316 homes threatened by the White Rock Lake fire between mid-August and early September. The fire destroyed 75 homes in the area, according to a regional spokesperson.

Van Bruksvoort says that given the seasons’s wildfire conditions, it’s no small thing to say no firefighters were killed.

He worked alongside fire crews from every corner of B.C. this summer, and had 100 firetrucks deployed. He tells us about how strong the wind was the night most of the surrounding community burnt, and about the impossibility of fighting a rank-six wildfire.

When the flames are that hot, all that’s left to do is to get out of the way and wait for it to burn itself down, he says. Only then is it safe to come in behind it and help douse whatever is on fire.

No one was expecting the winds to whip up the flames like it did the night the community burned, he says. He’d actually sent a lot of crews home to get some rest because the fire was so far away.

Then the wind changed.

“I was standing on the lookout, watching this thing. And I knew the kind of night my crew was in for,” he says. He checked in with his team and noticed two firefighters were exhausted and would be putting themselves, their team or the community at risk if they worked that night. He pulled them from the frontlines and sent them home. One came back the next day refreshed and ready to go and the other took three days to recover.

“They both came back, that’s what’s most important,” he says.

Sometimes, when a house is in the path of a fire and there’s nothing they can do to stop it, he’ll give two firefighters five minutes to run into a house, strip the pillowcases off a bed and cram whatever seems important into that pillowcase, like bedside pictures, he says. The pillowcases get thrown into the back of a truck as they evacuate the area, pulling crews out as the house burns.

Even when death is not part of the equation, post-traumatic stress disorder is still a risk for fire crews, Van Bruksvoort adds. Over his 27-year career, he’s known three firefighters who died by suicide because of lasting trauma.

But there’s hope — the culture around mental health is changing in the industry, Van Bruksvoort says. He’s even had one person reach out to talk about their trauma from this summer. That’s a big step, he says.

While we’re at the firehall Van Bruksvoort’s team runs drills, gearing up and piling into the firetruck as blue and red lights flash. The cool weather of fall is here, but next year’s fire season is always just around the corner.

The scars from this season’s fires are visible even here at the fire hall. Van Bruksvoort points to some trees metres away from the building that are burnt black.

When asked if he’s worried for next year’s fire season, he shrugs. Maybe next year will be worse, sure, but maybe it’ll be like the last two summers which have had more rain and less fire, he says.

This is a point of view shared by most of the people we meet in the Interior. There doesn’t seem to be looming sense of climate doom — a certainty that each season will be worse than the last.

Every single person we speak with says they can see how the weather is getting hotter and dryer, how the winter season is getting shorter. But when we ask directly if the wildfires are caused by climate change, people shrug, shake their heads, cross their arms. Only one person outright denies that climate change is happening — but many others seem uncomfortable with acknowledging the idea that climate change played into destroying their home and community.

‘Everything is burning and your house is gone’

Five minutes down the road from Killiney Beach on the west side of Lake Okanagan, Camille Steele and her son Thorin Leighty lived with the rest of their family in Estamont before the fire consumed their three-storey home.

It’s a jumbled heap now, with chunks of charred trees toppled on top of the rubble. Steele finds a piece of the granite counter from her kitchen, and shows us how you can crumble it with your hands after the fire cooked it.

Steele’s home, tucked in a quiet neighbourhood with rolling lawns, used to have a 180-degree view of the lake. She had a nectarine tree that overflowed with fruit, which she shared with her neighbours every summer.

“We had HardiePlank siding and a metal roof — all the things you’re supposed to have to fireproof your house. Obviously it’s no match for Mother Nature,” she says.

Steele learned her house was gone at 4 a.m. on Aug. 17, her daughter’s 13th birthday.

“It’s been pretty shocking,” she says. “It’s the place where you spend most of your time, it’s all of your stuff. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

But the family had insurance, and is working to catalogue what they’ve lost, clear the foundation and rebuild.

“As terrible as it is right now, one day it’s going to be a memory in the past and it’s just going be more like a big life event instead of something as traumatic as it seems now, you know?” she says. She gives a small smile, shrugs, and turns back to poking at the ashes with her shoes. There’s supposed to be a fireproof box somewhere in the rubble, but it hasn’t turned up yet.

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Workout gear and pottery are two items that wildfires cannot destroy completely. But the heat can blister paint, or melt a dumbbell rack. Photos by Michelle Gamage.

Steele’s quiet neighbourhood was destroyed by the fire, which destroyed around 75 homes along the residential stretch of the lake.

What wildfire consumes entirely and what it leaves untouched can sometimes seem bizarre — an effect we saw earlier at the Wilson’s.

Down by the lakeside in Steele’s neighbourhood, one house stands, paint un-blistered, green plants in the garden. Next door, barely six metres away, a house burned so hot all that remains are twisted pieces of metal, warped glass bottles, a two-storey fireplace, and the chalky remains of drywall. The garden wall shows the ghostly charcoal shadow of what once was a trellis. The next house down the road is untouched.

Bill Drinkwater’s home, which was a short walk from Steele’s, was also destroyed in the fire. He and his wife Elaine Drinkwater are staying at a neighbour’s summer cottage, which was untouched by the fire.

Drinkwater shows us what remains of his home: a water tank, a tool box, a heap of mugs piled in the ash and a pair of old metal piggy banks that belonged to his children. The coins inside have all melted together.

The garden surrounding the house was once “an Eden” of tumbling bramble roses full of blooms, Elaine Drinkwater says. Quail roosted in the roses, and deer would wander through as she sat, drinking tea or absorbed in a book. In the spring the garden was a riot of purples as butterfly bushes blossomed, and the magnolia tree blushed pink. Small birds would land on her shoulder and cheekily demand food.

The Drinkwaters heard they’d lost their home from a neighbour who’d tried to stay and fight the fire. “He texted around midnight, saying, ‘I can’t stay any longer, everything is burning and your house is gone,'” Bill says. “It’s been hard. When you’re in your 70s, you don’t want to be having to start from a suitcase again.”

Elaine and Bill first returned to see the house around Labour Day. Neighbours gathered in their driveway, half who’d lost their homes and half who hadn’t. “They were crying, and crying for me,” she says. “And I said, ‘I can’t cry. If I cry I’m not going to be able to carry on.’”

Elaine is one of the few people we meet who names climate change as a cause of the fires.

“This fire was a perfect example of climate change,” she says. “It was hotter, it burned more intensely.”

Other people, like Richard Mathew Louis, blame the wildfire devastation on the local government’s lack of emergency preparedness.

Louis worked in the Okanagan Indian Band’s silviculture department from 1999 to 2012 and has been certified by BC FireSmart, a program that supports wildfire preparedness, prevention and mitigation across the province, since 2018.

“But that’s not something something the band wanted to implement and here’s the result,” he says, gesturing to the burnt, cleared foundation where his five-bedroom home used to stand.

On a community-wide level, FireSmart can include clearing fallen branches and debris from surrounding woodlands. On an individual scale, FireSmart can include mowing and watering your lawn, or using fire-resistant roofing materials.

The program has been credited for protecting the community of Logan Lake, which was threatened by the Tremont Creek wildfire Aug. 14, but had no homes burn. Logan Lake is about an hour-and-a-half drive west of the Okanagan Indian Band. It created a community-wide FireSmart program in 2013 and has stuck to it ever since.

The Okanagan Indian Band only started fire-smarting the community once everyone had been evacuated due to the fire, Louis says.

The Tyee contacted the band office for comment about the timeline of their FireSmart program implementation, but did not hear back by press time.

Louis would like to see local governments shift from being reactive to being proactive. There also needs to be a provincial shift in forest management, he says.

“They have to let more burn and also change how they manage the diversity within tree farms and our forests,” he adds. “Deciduous trees don’t burn as fast as coniferous so it would have made a difference if there’d been deciduous belts throughout the forest here.”

This strategy is noted by the government of Alberta, which recommends planting deciduous trees like trembling aspen, balsam poplar and white birch around FireSmart communities to slow down fast-moving wildfires.

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Elaine and Bill Drinkwater stand in front of the remains of their garage. Their three-storey house used to stand behind them, surrounded by Elaine’s 'Garden of Eden.' The Drinkwaters’ home burnt down at the same time they lost their niece to cancer, and learned of Elaine’s sister’s Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

Back at the Drinkwaters’, we stand with the couple and watch a herd of deer pick their way down the burnt hillside. A flock of quail startle and come scuttling out of the remains of one of Elaine’s bramble rose bushes. There’s life here, and more and more bits of green are starting to poke their way out of the blackened soil.

But it’ll take generations for the trees and animal populations to recover, Elaine says. Longer than she expects to be alive. And, she notes, a certain amount of climate change is baked in and B.C. has many more unprecedented, record-breaking fire seasons coming.

“I feel what we’ve done here is profoundly wrong,” she says, talking again about climate change.

“I’m not happy with the world we’ve left.”  [Tyee]

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