British Columbia·In Depth

'You really have to move on': As B.C. wildfire evacuees return, mayors look ahead

Some wildfire experts say changing climate conditions mean more extreme weather and longer fire seasons each year. But mayors say fires are a part of life in the Interior, and there's only so much they can do.

Small towns in B.C.'s Interior say there is little more they can do to help their communities

Firefighters and emergency workers line the highway to greet local citizens following the recinding of the fire evacuation order in 100 Mile House, B.C., on July 22, 2017. (Canadian Forces)

Saturday was a good day for Mitch Campsall. 

The mayor of 100 Mile House in British Columbia's wildfire-stricken Interior was finally able to tell the residents of his town they could return home. Encroaching flames had forced them from the area. 

Still, he remains cautious. 

"Mother Nature isn't playing nice with us right now," Campsall said, referring to the winds whipping through the area.

"Fear is out there."

Sean Judson and Amanda Stewart are ready to return to their 100 Mile House home with their family. (Chad Pawson / CBC)

The region is still under evacuation alert, meaning residents need to be prepared to leave quickly if the fire gets any closer. And because of bone-dry conditions, Campsall expects that alert to be in place for the rest of the summer.

"Yeah you're home, but be ready to go," he said. 

His town is one of a handful whose residents returned to their homes this weekend — although thousands more evacuees remain scattered across the province. 

It's unclear what lies in the weeks, months and years ahead for those who are able to go home, if only temporarily. 

Some wildfire experts say changing climate conditions mean more extreme weather and longer fire seasons each year. But mayors say fires are a part of life in the Interior, and there's only so much they can do.

Getting back to normal

Cache Creek was one of the first communities to be evacuated, and one of the first to be allowed home. 

It's been a tough year for the town located about an hour's drive west of Kamloops. Earlier this spring, the town's fire chief was killed in the floods that swept through the area.

Mayor John Ranta says everyone he has spoken with is happy and relieved to be back. 

"Things are going to get back to normal in Cache Creek in very short order, if they're not already," Ranta said. 

Ranta dismissed concerns that raging wildfires will become the new normal for the region. 

"What changes? It's always hot in Cache Creek in the summertime," he said. 

A wildfire burns on a mountain behind a home in Cache Creek, B.C., two weeks ago. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Wildfires aren't uncommon in the Interior, he explained, because most of the region is arid grasslands.

And now that the fires have burned a good portion of the fire fuels like sage brush and grasses, he doesn't expect to see wildfires at the same scale for years to come. 

Ranta says his community already puts together emergency plans and clears vegetation to prevent fires from spreading. He isn't planning on doing anything more than the town already does. 

Instead, what he is looking for is more people to visit and hence financially support the small, tourism-oriented community. 

"It's a lovely place to visit," he said. "It's a community where all the men are men and all the women are good-looking."

Spending to protect the vulnerable

Tim Haney, director of the Centre for Community Disaster Research at Mount Royal University, agrees that wildfires are "routine and normal events."

But he points out that financial loses due to disasters have been on the upswing for years in Canada and globally, and government reports point to wildfire seasons getting worse. 

"It's going to be very, very hard, since the pendulum is already swinging in a particular direction, to swing it back," Haney said. 

A wildfire expert says financial losses from disasters like wildfires have been increasing globally each year. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

While there are no simple solutions, Haney said, one answer to the problem is for governments to spend more on mitigation efforts. But because of the costs, he thinks it's an unlikely prospect. 

"You don't want to be the politician who drops millions of dollars of scarce taxpayer money on mitigation programs for an event that may never happen during your political term," he said. 

However, Haney thinks those costs are worth it given that natural disasters tend to affect some of society's most vulnerable people because flood and fire-prone areas are cheaper to live in.

"Things are sort of structured so that disasters disproportionately affect those who have the least ability to respond and recover from them," he said. 

Facing 'the dragon'

The mayor of Barriere agrees that climate change has caused much change in B.C.

In 2003, the fire locals still refer to as "The Dragon" engulfed homes and the local mill, taking jobs along with it and quickly turning the town into a retirement community.

But Mayor Virginia Smith doesn't think there is much more small communities can do. 

"If it's Mother Nature, you're not going to win," Smith said. "She's the ultimate force, right?" 

In 2003, the McClure wildfire affected Barriere and nearby communities, destroying 72 homes and nine businesses. (Josh Pagé/CBC)

Nor does she think now is the time to talk about climate change, with thousands of people still forced from their homes. 

"I think right now it's just adding to the fear," Smith said. 

She estimates about 50 evacuees have gathered in her town. Her advice for them, based on personal experience, is to try to remain calm. 

"You really have to move on," she said.

With files from Cross-Country Check-up