The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

'From the Ashes': Rebuilding after the B.C. wildfires

Jennifer Chrumka visits four people whose lives were changed this past summer by the Elephant Hill wildfire, one of the most devastating fires in a record-breaking wildfire season in B.C. Her documentary is called “From the Ashes.”
The Elephant Hill wildfire burns through the hillside near Clinton, B.C. on Aug. 8, 2017. (Master Cpl. Malcolm Byers/Wainwright Garrison Imaging)

​​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 on the Ashcroft Indian Band reserve. Her four bedroom home was destroyed by the Elephant Hill wildfire on July 7, 2017. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

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.

Thorne is grateful that some of her trees, though scarred, survived the fire. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

"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."

Loon Lake

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.

Karla Hein poses with a horse in her barn near Loon Lake. During the fires, she had to evacuate her nine horses twice. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

"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."

Homemade signs, like this one just down the road from Karla Hein, can still be found throughout the B.C. Interior. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

"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."

Bob Erickson stands in front of his makeshift tent at Loon Lake. All three of their family cabins were destroyed in the fire. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

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.

Brothers Bob and Brian Erickson take a break on the site of their family-owned property at Loon Lake. Soon after the fire, the brothers were clearing debris and setting up a base camp. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

"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."

The Erickson's makeshift base camp at Loon Lake. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

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."

Pressy Lake

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."

Tim and Alicia Polanski on the site where their Pressy Lake cabin and future retirement property burned to the ground. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

"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."

An unlikely fire survivor? This cedar bear, which continues to stand guard at Pressy Lake. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

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.