British Columbia

Challenges linger for Williams Lake, months after record-breaking fire season

As 2017 comes to a close, many in B.C.'s interior communities are bidding farewell to a year that saw them flee their homes in unprecedented numbers. It's been months now since the flames have subsided, but the memories of the summer are never far from mind — and challenges remain.

'Every time I hear the fire truck ... I think, 'Oh now what?'' says Williams Lake mayor

Residents put up a welcome home sign in downtown Williams Lake, B.C., after the evacuation order was lifted. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

As 2017 comes to a close, many in B.C.'s interior communities are bidding farewell to a year that saw them flee their homes in unprecedented numbers.

It's been months now since the flames of this year's fire season have subsided, but the memories of the summer are never far from mind — and challenges remain.

"Every time I hear the firetruck, the fire siren go, I think, "Oh, now what?" said Walt Cobb, the mayor of Williams Lake. 

His city became one of the focal points of this year's wildfires when the entire community was evacuated in July

'The glow of the fires behind them'

Cobb chose not to leave, but he says residents who did recount to him on a regular basis their fear during that exodus.

Barry Williams, a driver delivering donations of Alberta hay and grain to ranchers in B.C., described the area around Williams Lake as 'post-apocalyptic' this summer. (Supplied/Kaitlyn Dorion)

"It was the trauma created by driving down the road at what, 20, 30 km/h because you couldn't go very fast because it was a lineup," Cobb said.

"And they'd see the lineup of cars ahead of them and the glow of the fires behind them."

That day also stands out for Kevin Skrepnek, the chief information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

"I was driving into Williams Lake in the midst of that evacuation," he said. "And so obviously a pretty surreal experience. 20,000 people heading south, myself being the only vehicle heading north."

Lingering challenges

The emotional toll from the evacuation is one of the challenges facing residents of Williams Lake, even though snow is now falling on the ground.

"We're encouraging those who feel the need to speak to someone [about] how they've been impacted to do so," said Al Richmond, the then-chair of the Cariboo Regional District.

He has heard that children, in particular, seem to be carrying some lingering separation anxiety. 

Walt Cobb, mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., says he is regularly reminded of the night his city was evacuated, July 15, 2017. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"I'm being told [they're] afraid to go to school sometimes," said Richmond.

"When they leave, they're afraid that they may lose contact with their parents and there might be another evacuation, and that's going to take time to heal."

'We're hiring, we're hiring'

On top of that, many residents didn't come back after the evacuation. 

"Definitely we lost a number of people," said Cobb, adding he's heard it could be as many as 1,000 people. 

"You can tell that by the stores, every store, just about every major store has signs up,'we're hiring, we're hiring.'"

The Williams Lake Wal-Mart has been posting multiple job openings in the weeks since reopening following a wildfire evacuation in July. (Wil Fundal/CBC)

Cobb says the city is now looking for ways to lure new workers or former residents, back again.

More broadly, there are also, of course, the financial tolls for business owners across the province who had to shut down and for those who lost properties or kilometres of fencing. 

The B.C. forestry industry also lost an estimated 53 million cubic metres of timber.

Looking ahead

As far as what lessons the 2017 season can bring for next year, Cobb and Richmond both say the major complaint they've heard is about communication. 

"Everybody wants more information," said Richmond. "People would like to see more collective information both from the regional district and forestry on one website."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with members of the B.C. Wildfire Service outside the Williams Lake Airport on July 31, 2017. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Kevin Skrepnek says the wildfire branch is waiting for the results of a major review, which aims to provide some recommendations in the spring.

Kevin Skrepnek is the chief information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He says last year's record-breaking season was mostly all driven by one 48-hour stretch of intense lightning.

"July 6th, 7th and 8th," said Skrepnek. "Take away those days out of the equation and potentially we could've had a pretty mellow season."

But what stands out for him overall is that no one died. 

"There's so many extraordinary things that happened this season, and extraordinary in terms of how bad they were, but again when we look at the fact that there were no lives lost, I think that's the main thing we need to step away [with]," he said.

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