British Columbia·Recovery

'It looked like a war zone': Life in Pressy Lake 2 years after the fire

Families in Pressy Lake are rebuilding and trying to move forward two years after the Elephant Hill Wildfire swept in and burnt 33 homes to the ground.

33 homes burnt down in Pressy Lake and now the community is trying to move on

Lorne Smith and his wife Cheryl Merriman lost their home and most of their belongings in the Elephant Hill wildfire in 2017. Today, they live in a new home on the same property and things are starting to feel a bit better, said Merriman. (Lorne Smith)

The North Bonaparte Road turn off from Highway 97 to Pressy Lake deep in B.C.'s Interior, is flanked by evergreens and leafy brush.

It's green for as far as the eye can see, until the road takes a sharp turn, and all the trees are black. 

Charred trunks are a reminder of the Elephant Hill wildfire that blazed through in 2017, burning down 33 homes in the community 180 kilometres north of Kamloops.

Lorne Smith and his wife Cheryl Merriman, both 60, lost their home in the fire and had to build a new one.

This photo was taken one year after the Elephant Hill wildfire tore through Pressy Lake in the summer of 2017. The trees are still charred along the road as you enter the community. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

In 2017, the couple retired to the region from Vancouver and had only lived in their house a few weeks when the wildfire struck.

Smith still clearly remembers the day they returned to Pressy Lake after the evacuation order lifted.

Before and after the Elephant Hill wildfire

3 years ago
Duration 0:27
Lorne Smith and Cheryl Merriman’s home was one of 33 to burn down in Pressy Lake during the Elephant Hill Wildfire in 2017. They have since rebuilt a new home and continue to live on the same property.

"It looked like a war zone, like the old World War Two videos that we used to watch when we were younger and you'd see where a city had been bombed," said Smith.

Two years after the fire, some greenery is coming back and homes are being rebuilt as families try to move on.

"It's a thing I never want to go through again and I can only relate it to something that people went through, [in] a war, or a flood, or where they lost everything, and you were on the run for months, and months, and months," Smith told Radio West host Sarah Penton.

One of the few things left behind after the fire on Smith and Merriman's property was a melted wine glass and a plastic parrot lawn ornament. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

When he and his wife returned to their property in September of 2017, there were only a few things left behind, including a plastic parrot lawn ornament and a melted wine glass.

"Seeing our place gone and still seeing lawn chairs out on the front lawn and our little parrot sticking in the dirt and everything else, it was just almost surreal.

"The house is gone, the garage is gone, but yet the front of the lawn looked like it was when we left it."

Rebuilding

Smith and Merriman built a new house, which they moved into this year.

"You can build a home, but everything that you've had over 40 years, your children's, your family's, memories, everything is gone. That's hard," said Merriman.

Smith and Merriman had to build a new home after their house burnt down in the Elephant Hill Wildfire. (Sarah Penton/CBC)
Smith and Merriman moved into their new house in 2019. Whenever they hear helicopters or see smoke, it still makes them anxious. (Lorne Smith)

The couple and their neighbours are now more proactive about protecting themselves, by trimming branches off of trees that are close to the ground, keeping their grass short and watering the land, said Smith.

However, whenever they see smoke and water bombers, it still gives them some anxiety.

"We know somebody is going through what we went through two years ago. So it kind of is disturbing, because we know what it's all about and the feelings, and the emotions, and that it's going to be sad for somebody else," said Smith.

Leaving a mark

Across the gravel road, Cathy Robinson, 63, and her husband Bob, 65, waited 10 months after the fire to move into a new modular house on their property.

Their new home overlooking the bright blue lake means a lot to Cathy Robinson.

"I wanted a little piece of Canada for my kids, my grandkids, to come and catch frogs and go boating and go swimming like we did when we were kids," she said. 

However, a new house doesn't mean the fire has been forgotten. 

Robinson's grandchildren painted flames on the fairy houses they made to hang in the yard. The house second from the left, is called the Fire Motel. (Sarah Penton/CBC)

Cathy Robinson recalls giving her grandchildren wooden fairy houses as gifts to hang in the yard. She was shocked by what the kids painted on them. 

"They're all aflame. There's flames coming out of the roof. There's flames all over the houses," said Cathy Robinson.

"You don't think it's affecting the kids, but it just does. And that's how it comes out for them, like in their drawings or different things like that."


Recovery: Stories From The Ashes is a four-part series that explores the aftermath of B.C.'s devastating wildfires and the affect 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. 

With files from Radio West

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