Greg Nyman had given up hope that his herd of 120 cattle had survived the wildfire raging just southeast of Clinton, B.C., as he combed the rugged hills of his range Tuesday morning.
Then, he spotted his favourite cow, nine-year-old No. 51, resting her singed feet while her months-old calf grazed among a two-acre plot of green grass surrounded by a torched stand of Douglas fir.
"I thought …'Holy smokes, there's a little bit of hope,'" the miner and part-time rancher told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday afternoon over the phone. "But then, when I got her up and watched her walk away, I thought, 'The calf that she has on her right now is more than likely her last calf.'
"A lot of people don't realize when a cow goes through a situation like this, it may look okay on the outside, but when their lungs are scorched and seared and they breathe smoke for a two-month period, it takes its toll and eventually they lay down and die or become unproductive."
Mr. Nyman said he had been trying to access the area for the past week during a lull in the fire conditions, and only after frantically calling a number of local officials did he get the go-ahead Tuesday morning to spend three hours checking in on his stock before firefighters started a nearby test burn east of Highway 97 at noon. Cruising on dirt bikes, he and two others were able to find about half of his stock, which they found in varying degrees of health.
He said he and dozens of other local ranchers in the hard-hit Cariboo region are angry that they keep meeting a bureaucratic brick wall when trying to get information about caring for thousands of cattle that roam the local hills during this time of year.
On a midday conference call Tuesday, Robert Turner, assistant deputy minister in charge of Emergency Management BC, said he understands this frustration, but authorities are doing their best to make sure cattle owners can care for or move as many of the 25,000 animals estimated to be affected by fires this season as soon as possible. He added that any cows killed should be covered by insurance.
Mr. Nyman, however, said such insurance is prohibitively expensive for him and many others in the industry, so he is hoping the provincial or federal governments help ranchers recover some of their losses.
He doubts that his cows will survive the next couple of days as crews start prescribed burns in the area, but even if he is able to bring them home afterward, they will have to eat into his hay reserves meant to last all winter.
Meanwhile, more than 840 fires have charred about 4,260 square kilometres in British Columbia this year and destroyed at least 71 homes.
Kevin Skrepnek with the BC Wildfire Service said hot, dry weather is expected to worsen conditions in the days ahead as smoke hangs over several communities.
"It creates a lot of safety issues for our aircraft," he said. "We can't fight what we can't see out there."
The Kamloops Airport tweeted Tuesday that smoke had forced several flights in and out of the area to be delayed or cancelled.
About 3,700 people were fighting 138 fires across British Columbia on Tuesday, including 761 fire staff from outside of the province.
Another 108 firefighters and support staff from Mexico are set to join them later this week, marking the first time crews from that country have fought wildfires in British Columbia.
The Mexican firefighters are trained to an international standard and have been deployed to Alberta several times, but never British Columbia, Mr. Skrepnek said.
"They're going to be valuable assets to us, just given what we've got," he said. "There's really no relief in sight."
It's common for people in the wildfire industry to work in different jurisdictions, and British Columbia's need currently outstrips crews that are available elsewhere in Canada, Mr. Skrepnek said.
"No agency can be prepared for their highest potential fire season," he said.
With record-breaking temperatures expected across much of the province, it will be increasingly important to ensure crews get proper hydration, nutrition and rest, Mr. Skrepnek added.
Plans are also in place in case anyone needs to be airlifted out of a fire zone due to heat-related illness, but Mr. Skrepnek said he believes that hasn't happened yet this season.
With a report from The Canadian Press