British Columbia

'It's homes, it's lives, it's memories': Wildfire tears through B.C.'s Loon Lake

In the early hours of Friday morning, Shawn Cahill watched as the cabin where he and his kids spent most of their summer weekends went up in flames.

No word yet from officials on the number of homes damaged by Ashcroft wildfire

Fires have burned more of B.C. this year than any year since 1961. (Shawn Cahill)

In the early hours of Friday morning, Shawn Cahill watched as the cabin where he and his kids spent most of their summer weekends went up in flames.

The Township of Langley firefighter was standing on the opposite side of B.C.'s Loon Lake, trying to halt the progress of the Ashcroft Reserve wildfire as it threatened hundreds of homes and vacation spots in the area.

Last time he'd checked, his property appeared to be safe — he'd cut the grass, sprayed water on the house and removed potential fuels.

"I looked back over and saw an orange glow and went 'Oh, I guess it's not going to make it today,'" Cahill recalled.

When the Thompson-Nicola Regional District ordered the evacuation Friday of 376 properties on Loon Lake, Cahill was one of a handful of cottagers and residents who stuck around to try and battle the aggressive fire threatening the tight-knit recreational community, located about a 40-kilometre drive north of Cache Creek.

Cahill joined three other firefighters from the Lower Mainland and three volunteers from the Loon Lake fire department in the fight, but eventually they realized they needed to get out.

The fire seemed to be approaching them from two directions, and gusts of winds were blowing flames and embers across the only road into the area.

That's when Cahill noticed what was happening to his cottage and the one next to it.

"Nothing I could do about that at that point, so we just carried on and made our way out of there," he said.

Loon Lake resident Shawn Cahill took this photo of the wildfire burning before leaving the area for safety on Friday, July 14, 2017. (Shawn Cahill)

No word on extent of damage

Officials from the regional district and the B.C. Wildfire Service haven't been able to say how many homes on Loon Lake were burned by the Ashcroft Reserve wildfire, which was last estimated at 42,300 hectares. Between 50 and 60 people were in the area when RCMP began ordering people out of their homes.

Fire information officer Mike McCulley said the area is too smoky and the fire too aggressive for anyone to go in and take stock of the damage.

Those conditions have also made it difficult for crews to get into the area.

"We know that our crews have been doing everything they can to protect Loon Lake and all the other communities surrounding this fire," McCulley said.

The lack of information has been frustrating and frightening for those who love spending summer days boating on Loon Lake and winter weekends snowmobiling through the hills nearby.

Laura Lloyd-Jones's family has had a one-room log cabin on the lake for five generations, and she would be heartbroken if it was destroyed. She also worries about the permanent residents and ranchers who make their lives at Loon Lake.

"This is a village, it's a community, it's people," Lloyd-Jones said.

"It's not just lake cabins, it's not just vacation spaces. It's homes, it's lives, it's memories — and it's all burning."

'You just can't fight Mother Nature'

Daryl Hart and his wife have made Loon Lake their permanent home for the last seven years. Hart is a semi-retired Surrey firefighter who helped with the attempt to protect the community.

By Sunday afternoon, he had had no news about his house.

But as a firefighter with three decades of experience, he always knew wildfires were a danger in that part of the province.

"When we moved up there, that was one of the first things I talked to my wife about," Hart said. "You just can't fight Mother Nature like that. Cross your fingers and hope for the best, but more so, be prepared for the worst."

As for Cahill, he had the tough job of telling his two teenagers that their cabin was most likely gone. They were upset, but he's staying positive and thinking about camping trips they could do instead.

"I'm holding onto five per cent of, what do you call it? Hope, that's the word," he said. "But it's pretty definite that whole side [of the lake] is gone."