Fire Fight is a multi-chapter recount of the 2017 wildfires in the South Cariboo. It won a Jack Webster and Canadian Community Newspaper Award in 2018.
By Max Winkelman, Tara Sprickerhoff and Barbara Roden
“I was at work Thursday morning and I got a text from somebody saying that there looks like something is happening behind the OSB plant,” says 108 Fire Chief Marcelle Ried.
The oriented strand board (OSB) plant is located to the northwest of 100 Mile House, barely within city limits, and is a major employer for the town of 1,886.
Within five minutes there was a call to the fire department for mutual aid. A small tower of smoke was immediately visible and started building so quickly that calls came in from communities dozens of kilometres away.
By mid-afternoon on July 6, high winds were carrying the fire away from the District of 100 Mile House and towards 700 homes in 108 Mile Ranch. Come 6 p.m., tactical evacuations were occurring. Before the night was over, the fire would grow to more than 500 hectares.
Long traffic lines formed on the highway, mixed with people riding horses to safety in front of a backdrop of an orange wall of smoke with glimpses of candling trees and emergency personnel in large gas masks.
Some ranchers would choose to defy evacuation orders and stay behind in the midst of thick smoke. They would come face to face with the fire to try and save their livelihoods, homes and animals. Others would throw open their gates and leave dogs, cattle and sheep, as well as their lives behind, left with hoping for the best as their only option. Within days, the fire would turn back and head for the 100 Mile House townsite.
“When I came up to the crest of the hill I was like, ‘Holy smokes.’ It was bad. You couldn’t see nothing. You could see the flames on the west side but the rest was just smoke. It was like being in a bad movie. Ash was flying across the highway. There was RCMP. It was just chaos,” says Ried.
A week of record breaking fires across the interior of British Columbia had not yet passed. Before the summer was over, the Elephant Hill wildfire that began the same day further south near Ashcroft would grow to more than 33 times the size of the fire near 100 Mile House.
It was a firefight that would consume the summer, threatening communities, homes and livelihoods before autumn rains would quell the flames.