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A summary of events and activity from the front line in Ashcroft, by Pastoral Elder, the Rev. Jim White

Friday, July 7 dawned with a brilliant blue sky and a stiff wind coming from the south. Late in the morning I had decided to fuel up my van in Cache Creek, and took the route through the Ashcroft reserve to see if there were any signs of the fire reported late the night before. All appeared to be peaceful, so proceeded on to Cache Creek, fuelled up and within 10 minutes was headed home again to Ashcroft anticipating using the north exit into Ashcroft.

Just then I had spotted a huge plume of smoke coming from the direction of the Ashcroft reserve, so headed south. Without stopping, I drove through the reserve, barely escaping the flames that had crept up the hills and onto the flat lands of the reserve itself. So explosive was this fire that it ran for 11 km inside of 20 minutes. The Ashcroft fire department attempted to cut off the nose of the fire, but 3 times or more had to retreat. Eventually the fire department did what it could from the flanks.

In the meantime, a forestry bird-dog over flew the area, and within an hour air tankers with retardant were bombing the fire. Forestry crews out of Kamloops were on scene within an hour and a half. The fire in the meantime ran up the West side of the elephant Mountain [which divides Ashcroft from the trans Canada Highway], through a dairy farm to the north end of elephant Mountain, where the fire then curled around the nose of the mountain and descended into the Bonaparte Valley destroying several buildings including homes and made its attack on Boston Flats, continuing northwards in the direction of cache Creek. Just before cache Creek the fire split, to encircle the town but not consume it. There the fire continued to march northwards.

In the meantime, the fire as it ran through the Ashcroft reserve destroyed approximately half the homes there, but left the church and the band office alone. The swath of the fire, in addition to the homes destroyed much of the cemetery, and as the headstones are mainly made of wood, destroyed much of the history of that sacred place. On the far end of the swath were left standing 2 or 3 homes which can likely be inhabited once again, once a thorough cleaning happens. The fire crested elephant Mountain and began to burn down the slope towards the village of Ashcroft, reaching the Thompson River in one place. In the meantime, we lost electricity, telephone [except for very spotty cell phone service], the Internet, etc. our village of Ashcroft was able to put us on evacuation alert, but by the time the alert had gone out, the fire had passed us by.

We never did get to the point of mandatory evacuation, despite what the news was saying. It would've been very difficult to print a notice with no electricity. In the meantime, the Ashcroft reserve and Cache Creek were placed on mandatory evacuation. All of the roads in our area were closed, including the highway to Logan Lake, except for emergency equipment. Our health site was totally closed, with the elders being evacuated to Merritt.

Community hub

The hub for our community became the fire hall, which was open to all. Food donated from the community including prepared meals were available to all 24 hours a day. It was there that accurate information as we knew it at the time was disseminated. No Internet meant no debit cards nor credit cards so we became a cash only village. Even to turn the gas pumps on in many service stations requires a connection to the Internet. With the wind continuing out of the South, our air remained clean and clear; but it was becoming uncomfortable as with no electricity also meant no air-conditioning, and we were setting the hottest temperature in Canada for nearly a week. Our grocery store, rather than throw out the food that was beginning to thaw out, in conjunction with the hardware store had a free 2 day barbecue which gathered many folks in.

In Ashcroft, we were without electricity for close to 48 hours [nearly a week for the Internet and telephone, although local telephone calls on a landline could be made earlier]. Unfortunately, in the crisis, many folks decided that they needed to water their lawns, which drained our reservoirs, and at our home for about 6 hours our taps only had air in them. For fire protection services they were pumping water from the Thompson, and filling 3 or 4 bladders set up throughout town. With our water system, we pump water from the Thompson into the reservoirs, but with no electricity, no pumps. It is interesting that in the now evacuated cache Creek, they were without power for only a couple of hours during the event, and retained all of their services, but no people. In Ashcroft we had the people, but no services.

A number of folks from Cache Creek and especially from the Ashcroft reserve have made Ashcroft there temporary home, and they are our neighbours.

Towards the end of last week, word got out that I was running short on fuel for my vehicle. One of the gentlemen of our community said he had a spare 5 gallon Jerry can of gas which we added to the van and carried me through until we could get gas again in Ashcroft. Neighbour helping neighbour became the norm. A number of people have portable generators, and these were circulated on a 4 hour basis throughout the village. When it became our turn for the generator, the electricity provided from that saved the contents of our deep freeze and refrigerator. As our area of the village had some of the strongest cell phone signals [the Ashcroft cell tower was gone, so we were connecting with the cache Creek tower], one of the common problems was batteries dying in cell phones. Our neighbour has a portable generator, ran an extension cord out to the road, put in a power cord which sat on top of a table with a couple of chairs so people could recharge their cell phones for free. There was case after case of random acts of kindness which is always wonderful to see. 

The damage up close

Within a couple of days of the outbreak of the fire I had the privilege of an escorted tour of the fire ravaged landscape as far north as cache Creek. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time a very steep learning curve and respect for the first responders. Some 80 power poles were down, with wires all over the highway or in the ditches. My heart broke as we passed through the devastation of the Ashcroft reserve and the impact it will have on its peoples. As we drove towards cache Creek, there was a B train of a woodchip set of trailers sitting on the highway, near where the fire had crossed the trans Canada. It appeared that the driver in his panic, may have stopped his truck, pulled the pin with the trailers without lowering the landing gear and drove off to safety. The devastation at the airport took out a home and a couple of hangers. On the drive to the airport, were as zigzag set of lines. Around this set of lines everything was blackened, except the zigzags which were a deep chocolate brown. It turned out that these zigzags are the ashes from a "snake" fence with log piled upon log, but leaving a different ash.

On to Boston Flats, and the remains of the trailer park. We did not descend into the trailer park, but looked at it from on top of a rise. Concern was raised about toxicity of that trailer park, with the danger of chemicals being given off by the extreme heat. Tears were close. But, one of the sights that gave one an idea of the intensity of the blaze, were what we thought could have been a small pile of aluminum car tire rims, leaving a trickle of melted aluminum flowing down the road. Nearby, we saw the loss of a couple of homes. But we also saw a miracle house at the foot of the elephant, where the blackened fire burned all the way up to the foundation of the house, but sparing the house. Other than the lack of people in cache Creek, and the smoke, we could see no damage. We went out as far as the South end of the Bonaparte reserve, and the south end appeared to be intact, although we did note blackened earth within 50 feet of one house.

Thinking ahead

The learning curve remains steep. There are things we can do to prepare for whatever emergency. With the loss of plastic money in our village, I am taken with the need to keep some cash on hand. My recommendation is to figure what you might need minimally for a week, and keep it somewhere near the place you would exit from your home [perhaps taped to the back of a picture near the door, where you can grab the picture on your way out of the house]. Bottled water would be another good resource. If you have access to it, but cannot get out of your area, look for an irrigated alfalfa field, as they don't burn. The bigger the field the better. [When the dairy farm on the north side of Elephant Mountain was lost, they turned the cattle into the alfalfa fields and virtually all survived].

I have mentioned the generosity of our local businesses. But I should not overlook the generosity of corporations such as CP Railway who teamed up with Loblaw's to bring 20 to 25 pallets of drinking water to our village. Places such as Costco Kamloops have been very generous in donated supplies. Walmart Kamloops gave many of those registered with the Red Cross a gift card. And the story continues.

With thanks

Thank you for your prayerful love, care and concern. And now for the people of Cariboo. Your story will be similar, but you have the smoke to contend with. Keep safe. Our love to you wherever you may be.