British Columbia

'Now it's just gone': Wildfire evacuees with destroyed property grapple with future

The vistas around the village of Ashcroft are dominated by dry, sweeping hillsides, with desert wildlife, farmland and grazing areas for livestock often sitting side by side.

Cattle farms, trailer parks and Indigenous communities among those destroyed in the Ashcroft-area fire

Rob Donaldson surveys the remnants of one of the barns at Bradner Farms' ranch near Cache Creek, B.C. on July 10, 2017. (Anita Bathe/Justin Mcelroy/CBC)

The vistas around the village of Ashcroft, in the B.C. Interior, are dominated by dry, sweeping hillsides with desert wildlife often being right next to farmland and grazing areas for livestock. 

Now those vistas are dominated by charcoal and ash. 

"It's devastating…this is what you do and it's gone," said Rob Donaldson. 

The 25-year-old is co-owner of Bradner Farms, which operates a ranch north of Ashcroft with over 2,000 cattle. 

But when a fire suddenly ran up and down the hillsides on Friday, Donaldson was forced to quickly find a way to let them all go — including those inside a recently built barn that held 300 cattle. 

"There was about 30 of us pulling them by their legs, heads and tails," said Donaldson, describing the race against time to free all the animals before the barn collapsed.

"At the very end there was a cow stuck and everyone was running. I went and grabbed one of my bobcats and blew threw a wall and scooped the cow up and drove through a set of flames and got out."

Remarkably, of the 2,000 cattle, only four died on scene, though a small number are missing. 

"We are real cow people, so for us to lose one or two … it's like losing a family member," said Donaldson.

Ranching is a cornerstone of life in the Nicola region, and Donaldson will regroup — though he knows it could take two years to completely recover. 

"We are going to rebuild, it's going to be a huge process but we're going to do it," he said. 

A staff member of the farm inspects the remaining structure. (Justin Mcelroy/CBC)

'The whole trailer park is gone'

In most of B.C.'s Interior, it's still unknown how many properties under evacuation order have been destroyed. 

But that's not the case near Ashcroft. On Friday afternoon, fuelled by winds and dry grass, a wildfire tore up and down the hills, expanding from 40 hectares to 4,000 in a manner of hours. 

After laying waste to much of Donaldson's ranch, the blaze crossed the highway and moved down a small valley to the Boston Flats trailer home community. 

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      Around three dozen properties once stood there, home to people 55 and up. Now there are less than a handful.  

      "We never thought that it would get to our trailer park," said Susan Smith.   

      "This is our third summer there from Prince George. We wanted to retire there, because it's so beautiful."

      She's tried to get in touch with as many people from Boston Flats as possible, hopeful that the community that's built up will survive the destruction.

      "[There's] the fear of not really knowing what's in the future for us ... there's so many of us, everybody's from out of town, and the whole trailer park is gone." 

      Majority of reserve destroyed

      Before the flames destroyed Boston Flats, they destroyed most of the Ashcroft Indian reserve to the south, which was home to about 70 people before the wildfire.

      "They said you can go home now. Go home to what?" said Ester Spye, recounting what officials told her after the evacuation order had been lifted on the reserve. 

      "My house was gone. My neighbour, Joey, his house was gone. My niece on the other side, it's all ashes."

      Kelsey Thorne holds her daughter Nevaeh Porter, 8, as they both cry while viewing the remains of their home on the Ashcroft First Nation, near Ashcroft, British Columbia, late Sunday, July 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

      Today, the stories near Ashcroft are unique, as there have been few other confirmed property losses in the wildfires. 

      But there are over 14,000 people evacuated through British Columbia. When the smoke eventually lifts in B.C.'s Interior, property losses may become too common to individually document. 

      "People that have offered to help me. I'm always such a giver and never a taker," said Angie Thorne, whose home on the reserve was also destroyed.

      "It's just really hard to think this could happen to you."  

      With files from Anita Bathe and The Canadian Press