British Columbia

B.C.'s Cariboo braces for new wildfire season as cleanup from last year's blaze continues

The massive wildfires that scorched B.C.'s Cariboo region last summer left a huge cleanup job that's still not finished.

Recent hot and dry weather has many in region concerned about what summer will bring

Tl’etinqox Emergency Operations Centre Director Juan Cereno stands next to the spot at the Anaham Band Office where a creek nearly washed out a section of Highway 20. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

There's a fire truck parked outside the office of Pioneer Log Homes up on the hillside of Williams Lake, B.C.

After flames brushed up against the edge of this property last year, owner Bryan Reid isn't taking any chances.

"We're all a little smarter now," Reid said.

"Whether we like it or not."

Inside Reid's office are three hefty cedar slabs that are covered with the signatures of hundreds of firefighters, police officers and military members who came from all over the province to help during last summer's wildfire season.

Reid credits them for saving his business and the city around it.

"This is our totem pole," he said as he patted one of the slabs.

"It's our history of who was here from out of town."

Pioneer Log Homes owner Bryan Reid looks at one of the logs that was signed by first responders during the 2017 wildfires. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Staying behind

Pioneer Log Homes — which is showcased in the reality show Timber Kings — builds custom luxury log houses in Williams Lake for customers all over the world.

When fire scorched one of their work yards last summer, four completed homes and about 40 loads of custom cedar were destroyed.

"That site burned within four hours of the first lightning strike," Reid said.

"There was no saving that one."

While all 25,000 people in Williams Lake were placed on evacuation orders and businesses closed, Reid stayed behind to protect his inventory.

"There were embers as big as your hand coming down and branches that were still burning," he said.

"You could see them in the dark of the night, so I'd run over with a water can on my back and a shovel to put them out."

There is now a firetruck parked outside the Pioneer Log Homes office in Williams Lake, B.C.

Bouncing back

Reid says it's been nearly a year since flames threatened the city he has lived in since 1961 and his company still isn't caught up on orders for new homes.

The combination of lost inventory and closing for several weeks during the evacuation order cost the company millions.

"We're survivors," he said.

"We're going to make things good but it really did put a damper on things."

Tl’etniqox Emergency Operations Centre Director Juan Cereno stands next to a culvert that had be removed from a nearby creek. It was clogged with debris. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Firefighter Warriors

About 100 kilometres west of Pioneer Log Homes there's a sign on the road side that reads, "Tl'etinqox Strong — Firefighter Warriors."

This is where hundreds of members of the First Nation defied an evacuation order last summer to protect their homes from wildfires.

Tl'etinqox Emergency Operations Centre Director Juan Cereno doubts his community would have survived if the "Firefighter Warriors" weren't there.

"We knew if we were to lose 30 homes, we would lose the entire community," he said.

"If 30 families leave this community, we know that 30 families will soon follow through and live somewhere like Williams Lake, Kamloops, Vancouver or Prince George. We weren't willing to let that happen."

He says they have nearly 400 trained firefighter community members ready to go again this year.

Cereno says the rushing creek eroded the bank against the highway's edge before crews were able to clear debris from the clogged culvert. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

The clean up

As the Tl'etinqox government prepares for another wildfire season, they're still cleaning up after the last one.

Fire damaged countless fences and gates, raising concerns about livestock wandering onto Highway 20.

Cereno says the combined effect of tree loss, debris clogging creeks and grooves dug into the earth to serve as fire guards made for a treacherous flood season.

"We knew that damages would eventually block the passage of waters," he said.

"Water came rushing down the galleys and it hit an area where we have approximately 15 residences. It almost washed out Highway 20."

He says the Tl'etinqox government has spent about $150,000 completing about 20 per cent of a 50-kilometre fencing project despite having difficulty securing government funding.