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Rights + Justice

‘There's No Looking Back. Your Past Is Wiped Out’

In her own words, Tricia Thorpe on being evacuated twice in two days as she sought refuge from a spate of wildfires.

Originally from the Kootenays in British Columbia, Tricia Thorpe is the daughter of a cattle rancher. She grew up on a ranch 23 kilometres out of the town of Rossland on a dirt road with “11 switchbacks in an eight-mile stretch.” Six weeks before Tricia was born, her parents’ house burned down in 1961 when a kerosene lamp exploded. The fire killed her three older brothers, who were all less than six years old. “I grew up knowing what fire can do,” she says.

As a kid, Tricia spent her days outdoors with her father, climbing up a hill with glacier lilies and going fishing. When her father got older, she would take her dog and wander in the woods for hours, collecting wild raspberries and strawberries to bring home.

Tricia spent about 23 years in Vancouver, much longer than she expected to stay in the city. She raised her four children there, growing corn in their backyard, hiking through Pacific Spirit Park and camping during the summers. She became a financial planner. “I'm good with numbers, so that was kind of my niche,” she says. Tricia was working at a large bank in Vancouver, at 12th and Granville, when she met her second husband, Don, a fourth generation Lyttonite.

Since 2008, Tricia, now retired, has lived with Don, a retired CN worker, just outside the Lytton village boundary, in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. There they have a hobby farm with dogs, cats, sheep, goats, chickens, peacocks, guinea fowl and alpaca. Tricia spins yarn out of the wool from the sheep and alpaca. She also makes cheese from goat's milk.

Lytton had set hot temperature records the days prior to the fire. On the morning of June 30, 2021, the day that the fire burned through the village, Tricia and Don were sitting outside enjoying the reprieve of a breeze that was blowing through that day while a new litter of puppies rolled around in the grass.

Here is Tricia Thorpe’s first-hand account of fleeing Lytton for Lillooet, which she would also have to flee, worried all the while about the fate of her farm animals, as told to Geena Mortfield of the Climate Disaster Project:

We had somebody phone and said they had seen smoke down by Hobo Hollow. My husband drives a school bus. He got a call just after 5 asking if he would run up to Stein Valley [Nlakapamux] School and grab a school bus and help evacuate the village. At that point, we didn't think we were going to be in danger. We thought because it was at the other end of town and on the other side of the river, that our farm was safe. So I went with him to try and give them a hand.

We headed out and could see smoke all across the village. I dropped my husband off at Stein Valley [Nlakapamux] School. Realizing I couldn't be a lot of help, I went to go back to the farm to try and see what I could do there. As I came down Mile Hill on the Lillooet-Lytton highway, I could see the entire town was on fire. Every building you could see from Hobo Hollow, all the way past up the reserve, was on fire. It was surreal. Like it wasn’t really happening. It couldn't be real. That’s gonna be burned in my mind forever.

I got to the bottom of the hill. The fire crew wouldn’t let me turn to go into the valley. They said the fire was headed this way. It was jumping the river and I had to turn around. So I went back up towards the school and passed my husband. He couldn't get the bus into the village to try and help. It was too late. So we regrouped at the school.

There is a back way into where we live and it's across the ridge. We thought, “Maybe we can get in the back way and do something to try and save the animals.” As we tried to go up that road, the fire was already on the ridge. We could see this big billow of black smoke over near where our place should be. We couldn't get back in. We were trapped on one side of the fire. And our farm was on the other side. There was absolutely nothing we could do.

We got back to school. They said we have to evacuate the school. You have to evacuate to Lillooet. That was just kind of surreal. People just had stunned looks on their faces. Everybody was in some kind of shock like this isn't really happening.

Everybody scattered to the four winds. Some people headed towards Lillooet. Some people headed towards Kamloops, Cache Creek area. And they were kind of pushed along because of the fire as well. Some people headed down towards Hope. It was whatever way you could get out of town, you got out.

We landed at a friend’s in Lillooet on the first night. We literally had the clothes on our back. That was it. I remember this friend handing me a glass of wine, trying to do whatever he could, and trying to cook up something for us to eat. Just not knowing what he should do, but trying to just be there for us.

A lot of fires when they happen, you have an evacuation alert, and then you have to evacuate. This didn’t happen like that. So you had people scrambling to do everything they could to help you. Overnight, Lillooet had clothing set up in this big gym. They had sandwiches. They were trying to do whatever they could to help. And it almost brought tears to your eyes, these people doing whatever they could.

‘I wasn't leaving till I got all my animals. They would have had to arrest me. I'm quite serious. At that point, I was done trying to follow the rules,’ recalls Tricia Thorpe of the plan she hatched to recover her pets and farm animals after fire separated them. Photo by Jen Osborne.

Less than 24 hours after being in Lillooet, we were being evacuated out of there. They were worried about the McKay Fire. So we chose to go to Kelowna. When we were driving to Kelowna, somewhere near Logan Lake, we got a phone call. A neighbour had stayed and his wife phoned my husband and said that some of our animals had made it, that some of them that had been down at the end of the field were alive.

They thought there was one alpaca and a couple of sheep. They thought that some of the puppies had made it, like four or five puppies, but they didn't know for sure. I mean, the material things, they don't matter, but the animals did. All of a sudden, in all this darkness, there was this little ray of sunshine, that there was hope, like something was still there.

We really thought that literally, everything was gone. And that was pretty incredible. That would have been July 1. Those animals were my purpose and they kept me going, like figuring out how to get them out. Without them, I probably would have been really, really lost and maybe in a lot darker place than I was. But they kept me moving forward. And again, like I say, I know what fire can do.

I started phoning. I made phone calls to all kinds of people. I was kind of desperate to get food and things into the animals because, from what I understood at that time, it sounded like the entire field was charred. I tried calling the TNRD [Thompson-Nicola Regional District], everything. Nothing was working. Then I found out that there is a commercial operation up the valley from us. They were allowed in with a police escort and three trailers to get their animals out. I thought, “OK, they got their animals out, I can.”

So I'm phoning the TNRD going, “OK, this happened. I'm gonna be able to get mine out, right?” No, you can't, because we're not a commercial operation. We were a hobby farm. And there are two different sets of rules, whether you're a hobby farm or commercial operation. If you're a commercial operation, you're allowed in, if you're just Joe Blow, you're not. It didn't matter whatever waiver I was willing to sign, they wouldn't budge.

I took to Facebook to the Lyttonites group and I said, “Hey, can somebody help me out here?” And some of the firefighters did. It was Jamie and Olivia and Chad. They came in here. And they found out that there were actually three of my four adult dogs here. They thought there were seven of the nine puppies, four alpaca, two adult sheep and three lambs. Which was like, wow. It was more than we thought.

They posted pictures on Facebook: the dogs with some of the puppies and there was this picture of the firefighters. I think it literally went around the world. You can see that our house is completely gone. And these firefighters were cuddling the puppies. It was just one of those pictures. Iconic, for lack of better word. So that was pretty incredible. They brought in dog food for the dogs and some alfalfa pellets for the sheep and alpaca. Those guys, I owe them a lot.

Then I got talking to [the BC and Alberta Emergency Livestock/Animal/Horse Evacuation Support Group]. There's some really badass women in that group. I have a lot of respect for them. We hatched a plan because we're still not getting anywhere going through official channels. Early on the Monday morning, we went rogue and Kelly from B.C. and Alberta livestock evacuation came in from one side near Spences Bridge. My husband and I travelled all the way around and showed up at the roadblock on the Hope side of Lytton, where we knew that the media were.

I wasn't leaving till I got all my animals. They would have had to arrest me. I'm quite serious. At that point, I was done trying to follow the rules. It wasn't working. I've never even had a parking ticket. I've never had a speeding ticket. And the one thing this fire has taught me is that playing by the rules doesn't always work. Sometimes you have to take that as guidelines. Sometimes you just have to take the bull by the horns and do what needs to be done. I don't think it would look very good if they'd arrested a little old lady because she wasn't going to leave without her animals.

I was really lucky. We met a very nice RCMP officer. On her own time, she and her partner helped us get the animals out. I know that we put her in a hard spot because there's humanity versus what the official rules were. And luckily she was an animal lover and humanity won out.

I remember stopping just at the north entrance to Lytton and waiting for Kelly to catch up with us. I remember seeing the railway workers working on the bridge coming across the Thompson. And I remember thinking, “Wow, you know, nobody's allowed in.” But they're here. There's a porta-potty set up. They're working to get the trains going again. And we couldn't even get our animals. People in the village couldn't get their animals for a few days later than we were.

Somehow it seems wrong that you will allow a railway crew to start fixing the railway when the majority of the village has been wiped out. These people have lost everything. And they don't know if their pets are dead or alive. That pet is family. And they should be able to have something in place. CDART [Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team] is trained in hazmat. They could have had people in there, trying to get those animals out, if they can allow railway crews in there.

After the fire, ‘I remember coming down the driveway, and three dogs came to greet me. I basically came so close to bursting into tears,’ says Tricia Thorpe. ‘I'm not sure how much I processed it, other than seeing and thinking that if we'd have been here, we would have died.’ Photo by Jen Osborne.

We came in here and it was the weirdest thing because everything was black, and it was dead silence. The ground and all the trees were total black. There was no traffic; there was nothing. Then you’d hear this bird calling in this black. It was very, very eerie. There was nothing left standing, literally nothing. The house was gone. The barn was gone. The shop was gone. The chicken coop was gone. We had about five outbuildings. Everything was levelled, or there was nothing left.

So we had to walk down the driveway because there were falling trees and power line wires, and I remember coming down the driveway, and three dogs came to greet me. I basically came so close to bursting into tears. I remember looking down and it was my orange cat Simba. He was more of a grey colour. He made it by hanging out with the dogs and there were nine puppies. All nine had made it. All nine.

The dogs had made a big hole in my garden and they had put the puppies in the garden and that’s how they’d saved the puppies. We never did find the puppies’ grandfather. I don’t know what happened to him. But the grandma, the mom and the dad were there. The dad died on route to Kamloops, most likely smoke inhalation and stress. But we got all the puppies. We got the alpaca and the sheep.

We lost all the goats, we lost my ewe lambs. We lost the peacocks that were sitting on eggs. We lost my assassin squad of guinea fowl. Assassin squad because they take care of the snakes, and I'm not particularly fond of snakes. We lost all our chickens. But it could have been so much worse. I'm not sure how much I processed it, other than seeing and thinking that if we'd have been here, we would have died, just given the way the fire had come around.

We came back on July 21, when we were officially allowed back and stayed at a friend’s place on the west side of the Fraser River until we moved into a partially completed home on March 7, 2022. I remember somebody leaving some flowers on my doorstep that had kind of wilted. That part was incredible. Just to be welcomed.

I think, because some of our animals hadn't made it, one of the hardest things to deal with was actually finding the burnt remains of your animals. Nobody should have to almost trip over what had been your pet or the remains of them. I found out later that the organization CDART can actually come in and locate those animals and talk to the owner and figure out how to deal with that in a compassionate way.

I noticed that those of us that lost everything, it’s almost like you've got a completely clean slate. There's only one way out of it and that’s forward. There's no looking back because anything from your past is completely wiped out. Yet I know other people that lost a shop or a rental home. But most of their house and everything else is still intact. They're living in a twilight zone. They wake up in the same bed, they can make coffee in their kitchen, but the minute they step out their door, their world is different outside that door. It's like living in two worlds; the past is gone, but not all of it.

The fire, I think, was the perfect storm. And some of it is climate change. Some of that was trains running, perhaps when they shouldn't have been. I think that the pie-in-the-sky ideas of having less emissions by a certain year are great. But you need boots on the ground. You need to do something now. I think that places like municipal regions need to take less of a laidback approach. I think that you need to do things like fuel management. I think that railways and highways need to make sure that the right-of-ways are clear of debris. I think they all need to work on funding it and they need to work cooperatively.

My husband’s a retired CN worker and he used to work out of Lillooet. Their supervisor, on his own initiative, had a patrolman set up where the train was coming down the hill, following with water, putting out sparks and fires. If you have a train in extreme heat, why don't we have water trucks following those trains? If we've got extreme weather, we should be accommodating extreme weather. We shouldn't be just saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s hot out, big deal.”

We've been having fires that I am acutely aware of since about 2003, when we had the Okanagan wildfires. Why do people keep reinventing the wheel? There should be a playbook out there that says, “OK, we've got a fire. This is the first step. This is the second step....” I used to work in banks. So if you have, for example, a robbery, you pull off that booklet, and there are sheets in it that says, “OK, you do this, you do that.” Step A-B-C-D. It’s all outlined. Why don't we have that for fires? I admit every fire is a little bit unique. But you could have basic steps. And I think it would be so much smoother for everybody.

It seems like everybody’s there on their own instead of working together. We border Lytton First Nations and the village. If you've got Lytton First Nations, you've got the village and you've got the TNRD. The village and Lytton First Nations were deemed toxic. TNRD was not. I don't understand how the toxicity knew to stop at that invisible boundary, because the fire didn't — the wind blows in this direction. Our regional district rep didn’t even know our house burned and he lives 30 minutes up the road. And so you kind of wonder at your level of representation.

Everybody thinks your government is there to help or these rules and regulations are there to aid and to help them make things easier. They forget that the community is there, and the community can do an amazing job of stepping up. In our case, if it wasn't for the community, there's no way we would be where we're at. It's been because of that community that we have a new house and a roof over our head and our animals have a barn. Without them, we’d be nowhere.

Yes, we are coming back. Lytton will come back. Our life is almost back where it was. It will never be the same. The new animals, being able to shear our sheep again, process wool and making cheese again — that'll happen. I just planted a garden. And it’s a future, right? It’s hope.

Tricia Thorpe is one of 11 climate catastrophe survivors who narrate their first-hand experiences as part of Bracing for Disasters, an occasional Tyee series investigating how to support evacuees and save lives as extreme weather worsens in B.C. (Learn more about how the University of Victoria-based Climate Disaster Project conducted these interviews in this story’s sidebar.)

If you are a disaster survivor looking for support or resources, or want to know how to be prepared, read our story 'How You Can Be Ready for the Next Disaster.'

This project was funded by the inaugural Lieutenant Governor’s BC Journalism Fellowship. The Tyee retained complete editorial control of the series.  [Tyee]

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