Wayne MacDonald, who lived through a fire, then a flood, then a mudslide on his ranch in British Columbia’s Nicola Valley, has a succinct descriptor for everything that occurred in just over a year: “373 days of hell.”
The wildfire erupted in August, 2021, during one of the province’s worst fire seasons on record. It nearly incinerated the Bar-FX Ranch, which Mr. MacDonald, a member of the Shackan First Nation, built with his wife Rhonda. They fought valiantly to hold back the flames.
When record-breaking rains began falling in southwestern B.C. a few months later, the fire-scarred landscape couldn’t absorb the moisture. The swollen Nicola River turned into a raging beast, swallowing two hectares of their property on Nov. 15. A half-dozen neighbouring homes washed away.
In all, six people and thousands of animals were killed in flooding that took out highways and devastated the communities of Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Princeton and Merritt. At one point last fall, not a single rail or road route was open between Vancouver and the B.C. Interior, isolating Canada’s biggest port for more than a week.
It was B.C.’s most costly disaster. But for the MacDonalds, that wasn’t the end of it.
On Aug. 23, 2022, the day they were set to host a long-delayed memorial service for Ms. MacDonald’s mother, a mudslide tore through their property. More than $100,000 worth of balers and farming equipment was buried in mud. This included the remnants of their calving barn. They’d rescued it from the Nicola during the flood, cleaned it off, then stored it in piles on a hillside high above the river, where it would be safe – or so they thought.
Government officials spent much of the last week – which marks the flood’s one-year anniversary – touting recovery efforts. On Nov. 9, Transport Minister Rob Fleming re-opened Highway 8, which snakes along the Nicola River from Merritt to Spences Bridge. After washing out in 25 places, the highway underwent an almost wholesale rebuild. Armoured embankments and a higher, more durable roadbed are meant to help withstand the more frequent and severe weather events that are expected with the changing climate.
But while the winding, cliff-hugging road itself may be back, a lot of the people who once lived along it are gone, or hurting or struggling mightily to rebuild.
The Nicola region is a verdant valley teeming with wildlife beneath towering, clay hoodoos, Ponderosa pines and snowy peaks. The surrounding hills, home for thousands of years to the Scw’exmx, have more recently drawn an eclectic mix of ranchers, hippies and billionaires.
The MacDonalds, who share the same, indefatigable work ethic and bawdy humour, built the Bar-FX Ranch from scratch after falling in love with a raw piece of land at the eastern edge of Shackan territory in 1995. They traded a used snowmobile for a down payment, and have been living the cowboy dream ever since. Their sons, Wyatt and Garrett, were named for Western lawmen – Wyatt Earp and Pat Garrett. To them, ranching is not just a job, but a way of life – “a bad habit,” as Mr. MacDonald describes it, with a rueful laugh. It is the steel-like moral fibre of people like them, as much as the spectacular landscape, that makes this valley such a magical place.
Mr. MacDonald, who was Merritt’s hockey “Coach of the Year” for several years running when the boys were young, is a stolid, Lucky Lager aficionado, who wells up describing the death of his favourite bull, Spurr.
Ms. MacDonald, 52, a talented horseman who once dreamed of becoming a vet, does all the calving herself, napping in the barn between births. She still cries – tears of joy, and wonderment, and relief – every single time a sweat-soaked heifer nuzzles her skinny calf for the first time.
For the last three weeks, the MacDonalds have been trying to round up their cattle, which scattered on three different mountains this spring: “A year after the fire ripped through here, there’s still no fencing anywhere,” Mr. MacDonald, 53, explains. The long, hot fall, and their new range has the animals confused, he says. “They don’t seem to know to come down.”
Because their property on Highway 8 is still under an evacuation order, their cattle can’t winter in their pasture the way they used to. A friend offered his property, so the MacDonalds spent last Sunday rounding up their herd, then trucking them across the Nicola River, using the old Kettle Valley rail bed to help with the sorting. By sundown, only the horses – who are boarding up-river with friends – remained clean and elegant. The cows were muddy, mucusy, sweaty and spent. So were the humans.
That is how the MacDonalds got through the last year: by relying on the kindness of friends, and finding new ways of doing things, a process that often doubles their workload.
The MacDonalds are tied to this land, and a vanishing way of life. Economic pressures and climate change have made small-scale ranching precarious. For years, Mr. MacDonald ran a logging truck for 12, sometimes 18 hours a day. Every dollar earned was invested in the ranch. He still runs an excavation business to keep the operation in the black.
The day Highway 8 re-opened, Shackan Chief Arnold Lampreau told media the nation needs “a better, safer place to live.” For months, Mr. Lampreau has been negotiating with officials to trade Shackan’s low-lying reserve lands for new property, away from the river. But many Shackan members, including the MacDonalds, are aghast at the idea.
In September, a motion to impeach Mr. Lampreau was passed. His political future now rests with a provincial arbitrator.
At the meeting, Percy Joe, the long-time former Shackan chief and a respected Elder, speaking in Nlaka’pmcin, told Mr. Lampreau that his roots were shallow. He could leave if he wanted. But everybody else – they weren’t going anywhere.
“We may not have understood what he was saying,” says Ms. MacDonald. “But we all felt it. It was one of the most powerful things I have witnessed.”
The signs of the flood’s legacy are both visible and subtle. It’s left a psychological mark on just about everyone around here, animals included. Kim Cardinal, whose home – and the property it stood on – was swallowed by the Nicola River last November, lost two young cats shortly afterward. The vet blamed the stress of moving from home to home; their immune systems shut down, she said.
If not for the generosity of a stranger, Ms. Cardinal might have also lost her horse, Winter, a three-year-old gelding she holds responsible for saving her life.
Ms. Cardinal and her husband, Lorn Thibodeau, were left stranded after Highway 8 washed out in the middle of the night. While awaiting rescue, Winter suddenly started kicking his hoofs and whinnying for all he was worth. When Ms. Cardinal shone a flashlight behind him, she saw that a gaping hole had opened where their cabin and chicken coop once stood.
Minutes after escaping to higher ground, the land they were standing on collapsed into the river. They had to be airlifted to safety by helicopter, Winter included.
For months after, Ms. Cardinal couldn’t walk the cream-coloured quarter horse – “never mind get a saddle near him.” It got to the point where she was scared of him. “I was so broken, thinking I might have to give him away.”
A few months ago, a trainer reached out to volunteer his services. “He not only brought Winter back to the horse he was, he took him to the river and rode him in water,” says Ms. Cardinal. “I never thought Winter would go near water again.”
The couple have made a new home in Spences Bridge, on a small property in the middle of town. But they miss their old life on the Nicola River fiercely.
In the weeks after the August mudslide, the MacDonalds thought long and hard of doing the same – selling their herd and moving on. The government is refusing to help cover their losses from the summer mudslide, and another slide could take out their house next summer.
They are alive to the risk, and exhausted by the unending challenge of living through disasters, but ultimately declined to throw in the towel.
Nothing will ever be the same. They know that. The forest will take decades to return. Their cattle don’t know the range. Ms. MacDonald can no longer look out her kitchen window at her calving barn, nor their winter pasture that used to snake along the Nicola River. That’s all gone now.
“But we are still here,” Ms. MacDonald says. “Fire, flood and mud may have taken a lot from all of us, but we are building back, better than ever.”