B.C. wildfire worsens existing housing crisis in Telegraph Creek

With the Telegraph Creek area still under a state of emergency, leadership is working with various government agencies to begin recovery planning in a community that was already in a housing crisis.

‘Houses right now are a huge issue for us,’ says emergency operations centre director

The Alkali Lake fire has been burning for three weeks in Northwest B.C. (Trina Anne Gleason-Zubek)

With the Telegraph Creek area still under a state of emergency, leadership is working with various government agencies to begin recovery planning in a community that was already in a housing crisis.

"This has just compounded the issue tenfold," said Feddie Louie, the emergency operations centre director and Tahltan Band economic development manager.

"Our biggest focus right now is … working on a plan to get our evacuees home as quickly as possible to minimize the stress they're living under. Houses right now are a huge issue for us."

It's been three weeks since the Alkali Lake fire ignited in northwest B.C. and more than two weeks since it burned its way into Telegraph Creek, forcing residents from their homes in the heart of Tahltan territory.

Louie wouldn't disclose exactly how many people have lost their houses to the fire, but said people have been updated about the status of their individual homes.

Chief Rick McLean told community members earlier this month 27 structures had burned in Telegraph Creek. The B.C. Wildfire Service says additional structures have been damaged in a fish camp nearby, as recently as Tuesday.

Prior to the fire, Louie said between Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek there were already 42 families who didn't have homes.

"And we were just trying to get our feet under us, to try addressing that issue. Unfortunately bureaucracy moves really really slow… This [fire] has just made it horrific."

Community still at risk

The Alkali Lake and South Stikine River fires merged into a fire that now covers more than 390 square kilometres. As a point of comparison, the City of Vancouver is 115 square kilometres.

The fire remains active and, according to the latest update from the B.C. Wildfire Service, is 11 per cent contained. The update said there are 171 personnel working on the firefighting efforts.

Tony Falcao of the B.C. Wildfire Service, Chief Rick McLean of the Tahltan Nation and Hugh Murdoch of the B.C. Wildfire Service update the public in Dease Lake on the fire situation on Aug. 8. (Phillipe Morin/CBC)

"The Tahltans have been on every frontline there is around this fire, whether it be on the fire line or on the frontlines helping the evacuees or working in the EOC to deal with the emergency," said Louie.

When the evacuation order first took effect most people first went to nearby Dease Lake where community updates were held each night at a local community centre.

Now, more than two weeks later, Louie said most evacuees are staying in Terrace where are more accommodations. Others have gone to places like Smithers, Prince George, Whitehorse "and some have even gone as far as Vancouver depending on where family is."

She said roughly 300 people are displaced from Telegraph Creek.

Assistance from neighbouring nations, individuals, businesses and community organizations has been one of the brighter sides of an otherwise devastating situation, she said. 

"We absolutely have tons of support out there… We live in a phenomenal community up here in the Northwest," said Louie. 

"We just continue to hold each other up and find the supports we need and find the strength we need to get through each day. Until somebody actually lives through devastation like this, it's really hard to say what the impacts are."

With the fire still actively burning it's not clear when community members might be able to return. Louie said conversations are ongoing about the upcoming school year.

Information about donations for evacuees, including drop-off locations, is available on the Tahltan Central Government website.