'From the Ashes': Rebuilding after the B.C. wildfires
This segment originally aired on Dec. 10, 2017.
By Jennifer Chrumka
It's been more than a year since the Elephant Hill wildfire started its destructive course through the B.C. Interior, incinerating vast stretches of ranchland and forests.
Hundreds of homes, cabins and structures were burned to the ground. The fire grew to nearly 475 thousand acres in size, covering an area over 100 kilometres long and about half as wide. It was out of control for 84 days; a devastating part of the worst wildfire season in B.C.'s history.
Just off the Trans Canada Highway, the Elephant Hill is a prominent landmark; the rocky ridge looks like an elephant lying down, staring off into the dry grasslands — all which were on fire.
For its victims, life will never be the same. Their lives, like the land, were turned upside down and radically transformed. Here are some of their stories, part of Jennifer Chrumka's documentary From the Ashes.
Ashcroft Indian Band reserve
The fire started on the Ashcroft reserve on July 6. The band is about 100 km west of Kamloops.
Angie Thorne's home was completely destroyed, along with a dozen others on the reserve. Many community members were displaced for months, living in motel rooms or billeting, as Thorne did, with extended family.
"To me, celebrating holidays and stuff ... I'm just coming around now. It's not the same when you're not in your own house. I don't have the decorations my kids made me when they were little," she said.
"I'm thankful for everything I have today, but it's just those memories that you hold, you know, for special things that you had — and you no longer have."
From Ashcroft, the fire headed north, near Loon Lake, where Karla Hein was forced to leave her property with her nine horses not once, but twice. The fire came within 50 feet of her property.
"Things have definitely changed for me since the fire," Hein said. "I'm more wanting to be by myself and not around people. I was a quiet person before but it's even more now."
Hein still wakes up at 2 a.m. to look out the window at the hillside and check for fire. "Even though it has been gone for months ... it's an uneasy feeling. I just want to wake up one day and be back to myself and things be back to normal."
"Once the regrowth starts, then everything's healing. I want to be able to see the deer on the side hill again and see them eating from the hillside. Once that starts, then I can heal too because the greenery will be there and everything will start being a happier place again."
Down the road from Hein's place is Loon Lake itself, where the fire claimed 45 homes.
The Erickson brothers have been coming to the lake for 55 years. All three of their family's cabins were destroyed in the fire. The brothers got to work clearing debris and setting up a base camp in an effort to return to normal.
"It's special for me and my brothers because my father loved the place. He actually died on the property, and so it made it sort of sacred ground for me and my three brothers," said Bob Erickson. "We vowed to one another that since our father loved it and died here, we would not sell it as long as we were alive."
Most of the trees on the property were burned so badly they'll have to be cut down. Bob's brother, Brian Erickson, said the area looks like a moonscape.
Still he remains positive. "It's the way it is. It'll be different but for the future generations it will be Loon Lake legacy."
One of the hardest hit regions was Pressy Lake. 33 homes were destroyed there. One of them was Tim and Alicia Polanski's cabin, where they had planned to retire.
"It was a plan that we could come and live here. We really wanted to give that a try," said Alicia Polanski. "And now the thought of two years of rebuilding and everything and you're retired ... you just don't know anymore."
"I feel overwhelming sadness, because you really don't know what direction you're going right now. Some people are very clear, like they're rebuilding. But those people are either younger or have adult children who are involved with the rebuild."
What did survive the fire was a carved cedar bear. It sits at the edge of the property, surrounded by ash and charred ground, surveying the lake.
"Everybody's calling him the Pressy Lake bear ... I mean he's a cedar bear, he should have been kindling," she said. "So again, you know it's the little things that give you hope."
Click 'listen' above to hear the documentary.