British Columbia·Recovery

How people who lost their homes in fires decades ago feel today

After enduring heartbreaking loss, survivors of wildfires in the Salmon Arm area share how they managed to move on and where they are at now.

'You kind of get a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach,' says one Salmon Arm resident

Julia Armstrong holds up a threadbare quilt she was given 46 years ago after her home burned down in the Eden wildfire. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

Salmon Arm, B.C., has seen its fair share of wildfires, but two of the most prominent to rage through the area were the Silver Creek fire in 1998 and the Eden fire in 1973. 

Some Shuswap locals lived through one or both of the fires. Those who did remember it clearly.

Julia Armstrong was pregnant when she and her husband lost their home nearly 46 years ago in the Eden Fire which burned down 18 houses. Hers was the last to go.

"We just sat there and watched our place burn," said Armstrong, who was evacuated to a spot down the hill.

This was Armstrong's mobile home in 1973 before it burned down in the fire. (Submitted by Julia Armstrong)
Armstrong's home after the Eden fire in 1973. (Submitted by Julia Armstrong )

She now lives in a different house on a nearby 30-acre property. The couple didn't have the heart to rebuild in the same spot after it was destroyed by the flames, she told Radio West host Sarah Penton.

Armstrong still keeps a photo album with pictures of the rubble of her old home.

"Now it's so much in the past, but it used to be I didn't even look at these pictures for a long time."

It took her almost 10 years after the fire to look at them.

'Queasy feeling'

Now whenever Armstrong sees smoky skies, it makes her uneasy.

"You kind of get a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach," she said.

Armstrong and her husband have tried to protect their second home from fires by building away from trees, having a metal roof and getting rid of dead grass and underbrush. 

When the Silver Creek fire roared nearby 21 years ago, she and her husband emptied their house because they feared losing everything again.

"We [didn't] want to lose things a second time. Once is enough," she said.

Even though she feels relatively safe in her home now, Armstrong doesn't think that feeling in her stomach will ever go away when she sees a fire.

"It just always brings back that memory of what it can do, the power of nature," she said.

Perspective

Carlene Bachelder, who lost her home in the Silver Creek Fire, also doesn't like smoke.

"Especially if there's a bit of breeze and it's hot, and there's smoke, it just always takes me back,"" she said.

Rebuilding was tough for her because her husband Ernie was sick — and later died — and she had to work full time. 

Bachelder holds up a quilt beside her now husband, Larry Bachelder, that was given to her after her home was destroyed in the Silver Creek fire. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

However, she quickly gained perspective when she suffered another devastating loss in October of that year — the death of her son, Wade, in a car accident.

Bachelder was hit by how little the stuff she lost in the fire mattered, compared to no longer having her son.

"It made me realize, I think, that it was all stuff and I couldn't replace him," she said.

"It's one of those things that, I'm so thankful for the people in Salmon Arm for the help. I'm thankful I guess that I have the strength to go through what I did go through."

Precious memento

Today, she shares a comfortable home with her second husband, Larry Bachelder. In it, she has a gnome that her son gave her before the fire. 

This gnome is one of the few mementos Bachelder has from her son that wasn't destroyed in the fire. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

"It was badly burned and actually Ernie repainted it and of course we replaced the marble on it," said Bachelder.

"I didn't even know that it was found. Ernie actually found it in the rubble and had put it away and didn't bring it out until after he had redone it and sat it up on top of the stereo just before Christmas."

The surprise brought tears to her eyes, and she keeps the gnome on display to this day. 


Recovery: Stories From The Ashes is a four-part series that explores the aftermath of B.C.'s devastating wildfires and the effect they've had on people who've lost their homes over the past four decades. It's produced by Sarah Penton and airs on CBC Radio One's Radio West June 10 and 11. 

Recovery is a four-part series that explores the aftermath of B.C.'s devastating wildfires and the effect they've had on people who've lost their homes over the past four decades. 17:20

 

 

 

 

 

 

With files from Radio West

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