British Columbia·Feature

Cruel welcome back for Ashcroft Indian Band reserve evacuees

Residents returned to fire-ravaged community, one of the first places to be hit by wildfire this July in B.C.'s Interior.

Residents return to rubble after wildfire destroys 12 of 32 homes in community

The sound of a sprinkler and dogs barking can be heard from the distance as you approach Gary Classen's house.

It's one still standing in the Ashcroft Indian Band reserve as many neighbouring houses have all turned to ash.

"It came all the way around the house, five feet away," said Classen about the fire than ripped through the community.

He was told to leave but decided to stay and fight the flames.

"Nobody was going to stop me," Classen said. 

Classen was on his way home when the fire erupted July 6 in the close-knit First Nation community of 76 people, located less than a 100 km away from Kamloops.

When he heard the news he jumped in his truck and raced home.

"Got to the Esso and got into my blue pick-up and flew up here."

With a garden house and a sprinkler, he attempted to douse the flames encircling his house.

Gary Classen wrestled the fire for four and a half hours, his only defence was a garden hose and a sprinkler. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"Four and half hours later, I had her," said Classen who used the garden hose to also spray himself down as he fought to save everything he owned. 

His main worry was to save his chickens, which he did as only one chicken suffered burns.

"I would do it all over again if I had to," he said. 

His neighbours weren't so lucky. Twelve of the 32 homes in the area were destroyed. The 13,084-hectare fire is still burning and despite efforts to contain it, the B.C. Wildfire Service says it's still out of control.

​"Pretty devastating for them," said Classen. "A lot of people didn't have a lot. They had their homes," he said.

"They lost everything, just lost everything, That's why I feel sorry for the people around here," said Classen. 

Many residents of the Ashcroft Indian Band reserve, like this man, were anxious to see what remained of their community after it was burned by wildfire. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
Darryl Kirkpatrick's home was untouched by wildfire and he borrowed heavy machinery from his boss to help clean up the rubble from other homes — as a way of giving back to his community. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Now as residents return, they have discovered the extent of the damage, which up until now, they could only imagine.

"We couldn't see because there was so much smoke," said Chief Greg Blain. "The smoke was so bad, we knew we lost some houses but we didn't know where, there was a lot of speculation."

He estimates it will cost $12 to $15 million to rebuild.

Darryl Kirkpatrick, whose home is safe, borrowed some heavy machinery from his boss and got to work.

"Just got back to check my house and boss shows up and goes 'ready to work? Yup,'" he said, putting on his mask to protect his lungs from dust.

"Anything to help the community to come together and unite," said Kirkpatrick. 

Blain said many people have home insurance, but no one had insured the contents in their house. 

"​Unfortunately we can't save their old memories, but we can certainly create new ones," he said

Dozens of residents are in temporary shelters with few possessions or food, while insurance adjusters are on the reserve, surveying the damage.

Residents are anxious to come home and to start rebuilding.  Hydro poles and other infrastructure also burned in the blaze.

On Thursday, crews worked to restore power, but the water must be tested to ensure it's safe.

"Hopefully the water is good and everyone can come back," said George Harvey, the reserve's maintenance manager.

"I've been here for seven years," he said, his voice cracking.

"And I think the world of the people here."