#626 Fire on the Chilcotin Plateau
Captured by Fire: Surviving British Columbia’s New Wildfire Reality
by Chris Czajkowski and Fred Reid
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2019
$24.95 / 9781550178852
Reviewed by Sage Birchwater
The wildfires of 2017 are still fresh in the minds of the people who experienced them in the Central Interior of British Columbia.
Across the broad landscape from Ashcroft to Clinton, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake, Riske Creek, Hanceville, Kleena Kleene, Anahim Lake and throughout the Blackwater, it was a long hot summer many will never forget.
In the midst of the inferno, two West Chilcotin residents, Chris Czajkowski and Fred Reid, experienced the maelstrom up close and personal. Captured by Fire is their shared story of uniquely different but hauntingly similar experiences where they were confronted with the question: Do you run? Or do you stay?
Many people across the region were faced with a similar predicament, and many like Chris and Fred (and his partner Monika and neighbour Caleb) chose to stay and do what they could to protect their homes and properties. Many insist they would have lost everything otherwise.
In the opening pages of the book Chris describes events of July 7 in Williams Lake. From her mechanic’s shop on Mackenzie Avenue she heard thunder and saw three bolts of lightning strike Fox Mountain east of the city. Within minutes she says a black plume of smoke was “roiling to the heavens.”
Chris is no stranger to wildfires. In her 2006 book Wildfire in the Wilderness, she describes her harrowing experience with the 2004 Lonesome Lake fire that forced her to evacuate from her Nuk Tessli wilderness paradise above Charlotte Lake.
Her first instinct after seeing the fire explode on Fox Mountain was to run. But she had to wait two more hours for a friend to arrive by bus from Saskatchewan. To complicate things further, lightning had set off fires at 108 Mile Ranch south of Williams Lake causing the bus to be delayed.
Needless to say Chris was antsy to head out of town once her friend arrived. As they climbed Sheep Creek Hill heading west toward the blue sky of the Chilcotin, Chris figured they had dodged the bullet. But her relief was short-lived. At Lee’s Hill, 50 km further on, a roadblock prevented any further travel along Highway 20. A fire touched off by the same storm was burning at the foot of the hill at Hanceville.
From the vantage point of the hill, Chris photographed the plumes of four fires on the horizon. Then with Chilcotin ingenuity she evaded the roadblock by taking a back road detour to Alexis Creek. From there she made her way home to Kleena Kleene unimpeded.
But Chris still wasn’t out of the woods. Approaching Kleena Kleene she smelled smoke. Her guts took a twist as the night sky revealed two or three wildfires on the ridge above the highway. The road was wet from rain but the country was tinder dry.
That’s how her long hot summer began.
Two hours further down Highway 20, Fred and Monika also saw a plume of smoke that fateful day. Monika spotted it first, west of their home in the Precipice Valley. They live 35 km down a bush road southwest of Anahim Lake. Like Chris they are off the grid and stay connected to the outside world through telephone and internet.
That puff of smoke rising out of the Atnarko Valley later became designated as Wildfire VA0778, or the Precipice/ Stillwater/ Hotnarko Fire. The ordeal had begun. Within days the fires at the Precipice and Kleena Kleene erupted out of control and residents in both localities were given evacuation orders.
Chris and Fred’s account of facing the firestorm, and dealing with the bureaucracy charged with fire suppression and public safety, rings true for many people across the region. Readers are introduced to the Chilcotin’s close-knit rural community — radically different from life in an urban setting. Although their two households are 100 km apart Fred and Chris are neighbours in every sense of the word.
Particularly delightful is the structure of the book, juxtaposing chapters written by each author. In an uncanny way it’s like watching two movies on a split-screen television, with plenty of overlap linking the two narratives. The reader can track events happening simultaneously in Precipice Valley and “downtown” Kleena Kleene from the first lightening strikes of July 7th to the mop up stages in late September. It keeps the reader engaged — though sometimes gasping for air.
I’m glad it took two years for Fred and Chris to publish their account of that hot and horrific summer. I’m not sure I would have been ready to dive into their gut-wrenching narrative any sooner. My own trauma was still too fresh.
From the south side of Williams Lake I also witnessed the incendiary lightening strikes that Chris describes at the beginning of their book. From our home we saw the black pyrocumulonimbus cloud rise from Fox Mountain, then crest the hill and move aggressively toward the Secwepemc community of Sugar Cane and 150 Mile House. More stressing was learning that the airport and the Cariboo Fire Centre, the brain centre for fighting wildfires in the region, had been evacuated.
Eight days later, the city of Williams Lake was evacuated and we joined the mass migration south to Kamloops. The normal three-hour trip took us ten-and-a-half hours of bumper-to-bumper gridlock, driving through the night.
We were locked out of our community for two weeks until the evacuation order was lifted. We got home to a city in siege. The army manned checkpoints to stymie looting as we witnessed the sobering spectacle of a city being reconstituted. The complex infrastructure of even a smallish city like Williams Lake had to be regrouped and its services reintegrated. Several major grocery stores like Wal-Mart and the Superstore remained closed for many days after people returned, to undergo a thorough cleaning and restocking of inventory. The hospital and seniors’ homes had closed before the evacuation and patients and residents sent to facilities in other cities. Sadly, some individuals never survived the upheaval.
Chris and Fred’s telling of these events speak for many across the region. We returned home to Williams Lake at the end of July, but for them the worst was still ahead.
Chris lives several kilometres down a rough dirt road from Highway 20 on the back side of McClinchy Creek, and from her house she has a spectacular view of the Klinaklini Valley. In the beginning, despite the evacuation order, she was able to leave her property if she travelled west, and return again to water her garden and make her buildings more fire-safe. She was given refuge by friends Dennis Kuch and Katie Hayhurst in Stuix along the Atnarko River at the foot of the Bella Coola Hill, about 120 km away.
The route east was cut off because of the Hanceville and Riske Creek fires, but the road west through Anahim Lake to Bella Coola Valley was unimpeded during the early days of the fire. Then the authorities clamped down. They told her if she left, she wouldn’t be allowed home again. So Chris chose to stay.
She was in a quandary. Staying home put her in harm’s way and also endangered the lives of those who ventured in to check on her and try to convince her to leave.
Fred and Monika saw a more positive side of the BC Wildfire Service. Throughout most of the fire they were under a different fire management regime headquartered in the Central Coast. Unlike Chris, they had direct contact with the firefighters who established a staging area at their farm, and they were given comprehensive information about the fires right from the start.
Fred tells how the community of Anahim Lake supported the residents of the Precipice by showing up with sprinklers and pumps to fireproof the buildings, and help out in other ways as the fire got ever closer to their properties.
Through it all, Fred and neighbour Caleb hayed their two ranches. Not only were the fields ready to harvest, but the dry lanky uncut hay was a potential fire hazard.
Chris, on the other hand, was shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke and mostly dealt with authorities concerned with her safety.
Captured by Fire gives the reader a peek at the inner workings of the wildfire-fighting system. You learn the difference between evacuation alert and evacuation order, and are introduced to the complexity and uncertainty of shift changes of those managing a mega fire. Having a new fire boss brought in to relieve the old one can lead to confusion.
Many people across the region were critical of the government’s handling of the massive wildfire event. They say local knowledge, expertise, manpower, and equipment were under-utilized or outright disregarded. Distant fire managers from outside the region were calling the shots and sometimes made decisions that accelerated the fires. It was felt that employing local expertise might have avoided those pitfalls.
The book concludes with a disclaimer, however, encouraging citizens in urban communities to obey evacuation orders when confronted by wildfire. “Although we stayed in the face of the Precipice and Kleena Kleene fires, the tragic loss of life in the 2018 California fires highlights the need to obey early evacuation calls,” state the authors.
Chris and Fred are optimistic that the BC Wildfire Service learned to do things differently after receiving feedback about mistakes made in 2017.
Asked if he would ignore an evacuation order again, Fred says he probably would stay to defend his place. “But Monika might go. I didn’t realize how the experience traumatized her.”
Captured by Fire includes maps and line drawing by Chris and Fred, along with dramatic photo images taken by both authors and various helicopter pilots.
As a first-time author, Fred says he learned a lot working with Chris Czajkowski, who has eleven other titles to her credit. “She did three edits of my work before we sent it to the publisher, and I think working with me affected her writing too.”
Both authors will be visiting communities throughout British Columbia, giving slideshows to promote their book.
For a complete list of book tour locations and times see Chris Czajkowski’s website.
As a long-time resident of the Chilcotin, Sage Birchwater has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). Born in Victoria in 1948, Birchwater was involved with Cool Aid in Victoria, travelled throughout North America, and worked as a trapper, photographer, environmental educator, and oral history researcher. Sage continues to make an enormous literary contribution to the Cariboo and Chilcotin, having served as the Chilcotin rural correspondent for two local papers for 24 years while raising his family south of Tatla Lake. He has also lived in Taklayoko, where he was a freelance writer and editor, and Williams Lake, where he was a staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune until his retirement in 2009. His books besides Chiwid are Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin with Stan Navratil (2004); Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin (Caitlin Press, 2009); Double or Nothing: The Flying Fur Buyer of Anahim Lake (Caitlin, 2010); The Legendary Betty Frank (Caitlin, 2011); Flyover: British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, with Chris Harris (2012); Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin (Caitlin, 2013); Chilcotin Chronicles (Caitlin, 2017).
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