Cleanup and rebuilding underway in Telegraph Creek, B.C., after destructive wildfires

'I love it, it's my hometown. I even cried when they left the barrier and said we can go in now,' said 77-year-old Henry Vance, preparing to move back to Telegraph Creek after a 102-day evacuation order.

21 homes were destroyed by wildfire last summer; 102-day evacuation order was lifted this month

A 102-day evacuation order for the remote community of Telegraph Creek, B.C., was lifted two weeks ago. It will be several more weeks before all the displaced residents are back home. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A layer of snow now covers much of the blackened ground around Telegraph Creek, B.C., but it's not hard to find other evidence of the wildfire that devastated the community this past summer.

"We lost, I'm going to say, everything that means a lot to us," said Feddie Louie, director of the Tahltan Emergency Operations Centre.

"One hundred and twenty-five thousand hectares of our land, 21 homes in our community, and many, many cultural structures out on the land as well."

Two weeks after a 102-day evacuation order on the community was lifted, the cleanup is still continuing. Some residents have been able to move back into their homes, while others are still waiting.

Houses are being cleaned and repaired, while others damaged beyond repair are simply being torn down and replaced with modular homes. Louie says more than $12 million has been spent so far.

Feddie Louie, director of the Tahltan Emergency Operations Centre, says more than $12 million has already been spent to clean and rebuild in the community. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"We've had slope remediation going on, we've had to redo the water system because it got contaminated, we've had tons and tons of debris moved from the community — burnt vehicles, burnt metal, burnt trees," Louie said. 

The goal, according to Louie, is to have everyone back home by Dec. 20.

"And then I'm going to take a break," she said.

The Tahltan Development Corp. has been installing new modular homes for residents. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Ajit Bob was among the first to leave the community as the fire approached in August. She left immediately because her children have asthma and the smoke was becoming a major problem.

Her children are still in Terrace, B.C., staying with family, but Bob came back to Telegraph Creek two weeks ago to prepare meals for all the workers in town.

"I am happy that I am here to help…. It just warms my heart to see people coming back," she said.

"All of this used to be trees, and now there's nothing. It's very weird seeing the mountains."

Destroyed homes have been removed, leaving empty lots. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

'I lost everything'

Henry Vance is still waiting to return home. The 77-year-old says he's lived in Telegraph Creek for about 50 years.

"I love it, it's my hometown. I even cried when they left the barrier and said we can go in now," he said.

He remembers spotting the small fire that would be called the Alkali Lake wildfire, and he knew it could become a major problem.

'Everything I left is still in my memory,' says Henry Vance, 77, who's still waiting in nearby Dease Lake, B.C., to go home to Telegraph Creek. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"At the time, it was just a little fire, and I thought they've got to get all hands on deck and work on it," he recalled. 

The fire grew quickly and soon enough, an evacuation order was issued for the community. Vance was forced to flee with everyone else.

"I lost everything. All my belongings in Telegraph. We got pulled out of there so fast, there was no time to pick up anything," he said. "But what can you do? The fire is chasing you out — you have no time to pick anything up.

"Everything I left is still in my memory."

The forest around Telegraph Creek, B.C., marked by fire. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Christine Ball, health director for the Tahltan Band Council, also lost her home. 

"It was devastating," she said.

She was able to go back to the community in September — long before the evacuation order was lifted, and when emergency officials were still busy in the area.

"I remember coming up to the first part and then coming over the hill there, and it was just burnt. Everything, right to the ground, was just burnt," Ball said.

"The entire valley we lived in, we hunted in, we fished in, was burnt."

An aerial view of the community shows fire-damaged forest on the surrounding hills. (Tahltan Emergency Operations Centre)

Making do 

Ball plans to move back to Telegraph Creek as soon as she can, though the Tahltan Band Council office will remain in nearby Dease Lake, B.C., for the time being. Ball says they're "making do" there.

She has high praise for the B.C. government and its efforts to support community members while the evacuation order was in effect. She said she's been watching news coverage of the California wildfires and feels lucky to be in B.C.

'Our people are very resilient — and right from the older people to the younger ones,' said Christine Ball, health director for the Tahltan Band Council. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"As health director, I honestly didn't know we had such fabulous provincial programming. Nobody went hungry, everybody had shelters," Ball said.

She also believes the community has reason to be proud — for staying strong in the face of disaster. 

"Yes, we were displaced, yes, we were out of our community, but our people are very resilient — and right from the older people to the younger ones, I found," she said.

"And I think it brought us closer together, as a community and as a Nation."

Residents are concerned about whether or not wildlife will return to the area. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

With files from Philippe Morin