Jim Cooperman is an author and environmentalist who has lived in Lee Creek, B.C., since 1969.
We began to fireproof our 40-acre property that overlooks B.C.’s Shuswap Lake several years ago, knowing it was not a question of if, but when a fire could hit us. First, we removed small trees, trimmed branches, and cut down the juniper shrubs next to the log home where my wife and I raised our five children. Last fall, we selectively logged our property and removed most of the trees near our home, and then this spring, we replaced the wood siding on one outside wall with metal.
After several decades of advocating for environmental protection and better forest management, I knew the day would come when the risks of climate change and wildfires would make it to my doorstep. After lightning started two fires on either side of nearby Adams Lake on July 12, I was concerned when these fires were not put out quickly. The reason is obvious: Canada has not made the investment in the resources needed to adequately fight wildfires. Federal politicians focus more on purchasing fighter jets and warships than buying the water bombers and skimmers needed to douse fires when they start, while provinces have far too many other priorities.
My dread about what could soon come intensified on July 20, when the Bush Creek East fire exploded and became visible that evening in Squilax, a small community just eight kilometres from our home. Yet, adequate resources were not directed toward the fire until Aug. 2, when it nearly burned homes on the shore of Adams Lake. But by then it was too late to contain it. Once fires reach a certain size, only a change in weather will put them out.
There is a NASA website that is updated daily with a satellite map that shows fire hot spots across the world, and I watched it like a hawk. Seeing the fire move closer to us, our concerns grew stronger. On Aug. 17, when the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) announced its plans to do a controlled burn in the hills above us, our fears intensified even more.
During the afternoon before the controlled burn, a BCWS crew arrived and installed a 25,000-gallon water tank on our road, and ran hoses to sprinklers on the roofs of most of the homes near us. I had already been sprinkling the hillside behind our home, and these new sprinklers were a welcome addition to my efforts.
That evening, we witnessed a giant mushroom cloud of smoke rising in the hills. From the lake, I took a photo that showed the smoke moving swiftly eastward. That night, the sky was red.
The following morning, the sprinklers were on and BCWS announced that its controlled burn was a success. We breathed a sigh of relief. Then at noon, our daughter was driving through Scotch Creek, a small community 6 km east of us on Shuswap Lake. She saw flames in the hills and phoned immediately to urge us to evacuate. Fortunately, we had our essentials packed and ready, so we headed out quickly.
It took the Columbia Shuswap Regional District another 90 minutes to issue the evacuation order for Scotch Creek and my community of Lee Creek, and by then it was too late for many residents to drive out – many ended up evacuating by boat or driving the 40 km logging road to Seymour Arm. They did not issue the order for the community of Celista until after most of the homes had burnt. It was a miracle that no one died.
The Shuswap firestorm was a multiheaded colossal monster, as the fires moved south and east spanning 22 km in a matter of hours. More than 300 homes, buildings and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and much of the forest was burnt to a crisp.
On Aug. 19, I returned to learn the fate of my home. I was relieved to see it had survived – the fire had only reached the green hillside that we had watered. But the land that we love and cherish has been forever changed. The magnificent trails we hike are black and grey, the wildlife habitat is gone, and now we fear the inevitable landslides and floods that will come when heavy rain falls where the moisture cannot be absorbed because the trees are dead, and the soil is burnt.
Immediately after our arrival, a young helper and I had to work on a spot fire that threatened the shed that services our deep well, and if it grew larger, our neighbour’s home. A BCWS team arrived, but refused to help because they were tasked to only attend to fires immediately threatening structures. We had to use buckets of water from our pond to douse it.
Putting out spot fires is akin to playing Whac-A-Mole, as no sooner are the flames put out, they rise again, because these fires are underground in roots and stumps. Fortunately, there were fire department trucks and crews from all over the province, and two showed up later that day to work on our spot fire, along with one of the residents who remained behind to protect homes and properties. That spot fire persisted for nearly a week, and when I returned to Kamloops, where we stayed during the evacuation, neighbours monitored it and fire trucks to continued to wet it down.
We will be forever grateful for the heroic efforts of our neighbours, who protected properties and homes by working day and night putting out spot fires, including one that was enormous. Throughout the North Shuswap, upward of 300 residents defied the evacuation orders and remained behind or returned to fight fires, and others helped by providing food and supplies. These heroes are not average citizens, as many are contractors, loggers and ranchers with years of experience working in the woods, including many who have fought fires for years. They utilized dozens of homemade fire trucks with tanks, pumps and hoses, as well as heavy equipment to build fire guards. Some worked collaboratively with BCWS personnel.
Despite their essential service to our community, these local firefighters who decided to ignore the evacuation order were under strict orders to remain on their properties. Dozens of police and conservation officers, including some from Vancouver, were brought in to enforce the rules. Roadblocks were set up along our highway at bridges and spike strips that can puncture tires were used to prevent vehicles from evading the checkpoints. Thankfully, many boat owners from communities across the lake helped transport people and bring in supplies, until the police began monitoring the lake with their watercraft and threatened to seize boats and issue fines.
Yet, despite the strict rules and heavy enforcement, our resilient and resourceful community firefighters found ways to evade the authorities and obtain food and supplies, including fuel for their equipment and water for their hoses. Countless homes and properties were saved from the fires, but they could not protect every house, and a few more structures were lost to spot fires after the firestorm.
The BCWS was very challenged by this firestorm, as they had to evacuate their camp in the afternoon of Aug. 18, when the fire raged through Squilax, burning many of the firefighter’s tents before destroying 85 homes, cabins and businesses on the reserve. The fire then jumped the river and raced south into Turtle Valley, while some members of Skwlāx te Secwépemc, including their chief, sought refuge under the bridge.
It took BCWS a few days before personnel and equipment could return to effectively work on the fire. In some areas of the community, including Celista, there were no government firefighters for many days and only locals were there to protect homes. Finally, after a week, BCWS recognized there was a need to utilize locals to help with firefighting efforts and they organized a 10-hour training course. Approximately 30 residents were paid to work 12-hour shifts side-by-side with BCWS staff to put out spot fires.
The conflicts between locals and government authorities caused by strict evacuation order regulations that do not recognize the values of rural residents in fire zones are not unique, as the same problems have occurred many times in the past. The B.C. government recently said it was considering incorporating local volunteers into efforts to defend communities from wildfire. Hopefully, B.C. follows through so that in the future, local residents will be able to legally protect their homes and properties, as is the case in other jurisdictions around the world. One might also hope that the 43,300 hectare Shuswap wildfire, as well as other recent destructive fires, will finally spur governments to be more pro-active in both putting out fires and reducing fuel loads surrounding rural communities. This year’s record-breaking number of wildfires and hectares burned clearly demonstrates there is an urgent need for improvement.
Fires of the future: More from The Globe and Mail
The wildfires of 2023 emitted more greenhouse gases than all Canadian industries combined. Research scientist Werner Kurz spoke with The Decibel about what that means and how we can limit the damage of future fire seasons. Subscribe for more episodes.