Like many British Columbians in 2017, Claudia Cornwall found hersel glued to the news about the disastrous wildfires across the province. Her worry was personal: her cabin at Sheridan Lake had been in the family for sixty years and was now in danger of destruction.
Cornwall conducted more than 50 hours of interviews with ranchers, cottagers, Indigenous residents, RCMP officers,
evacuees, store and resort owners, search and rescue volunteers, firefighters and local government officials to write British Columbia in Flames, published Sept. 18, 2020.
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 4.
We got out every hose and pump we had
“There’s a fire at the Ashcroft Reserve and it’s going to be in Bonaparte in no time at all!” the caller said. Ryan Day, Chief of
the Bonaparte First Nation, who received the message at 12:30 p.m. on July 7, was an hour away, in Kamloops. He had been
married for just two weeks. He quickly rounded up some face masks and other supplies he thought might be useful and hit the
We met in a coffee shop in Kamloops on a slushy afternoon in February 2018. As soon as a tall, handsome man with a shock of shiny black hair walked in, I figured it was him. I was right. My daughter-in-law, Leanna Mitchell, had put us in touch. She’d come to know Ryan when they were students at Simon Fraser University. He has worked with at-risk Indigenous youth on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and graduated with a BA in economics from SFU and an MA in Indigenous governance from the University of Victoria. In his twenties, he was a competitive runner who won silver medals in Canadian half and full marathons and qualified for the world championships. When we spoke, he told me a little wistfully that he had less time to run than he used to have. Ryan had been elected chief in 2015 and, as well as his political duties, he had a seven-year-old and a ten-week-old baby claiming his attention.
When Ryan arrived back at Bonaparte, five kilometres north of Cache Creek, the band members already knew about the looming danger. I asked him if the RCMP helped with the evacuation, but he said, “No, it was way too fast. There was not enough time for them to become involved.” About sixty of the band’s 280 members elected to stay and fight the fire. Stories by Canadian Press, News 1130 and other news media reported that the Bonaparte Nation had disobeyed an evacuation order,30 but according to Ryan, the news stories weren’t accurate. Nations can determine for themselves whether they are going to evacuate or not. When the band council chose to defend its land with those members who wanted to do so, it was not defying anyone; it was within its legal rights.
“We’ve never been faced with something like this before. It wasn’t a decision we took lightly,” Ryan maintained. “It wasn’t a
foolish decision, it was calculated. Our people knew the land, the roads, the winds.” Many First Nations have a deep understanding of fires due to their traditions of using them to help game and edible plants flourish. Amy Christianson, a Métis social scientist with the Canadian Fire Service, explained in a phone conversation how Indigenous people picked their moments for fires: “If the snow was receding up a hill, they would burn up to the snow line, and the fire would extinguish itself on the snow. Then they would go in two weeks again as the snow had receded further, and burn the next stretch that had opened up. They would burn at regular intervals. In some areas, they might burn every two years, in others, every ten.”
Bonaparte chief Ryan Day relied on the experience of band “old-timers” when fire threatened their land.
Several members of the Bonaparte First Nation had twenty years of firefighting experience under their belts and a distin-
guished teacher, Percy Minnabarriet, had schooled a number of them. Not only was Percy inducted into the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2008 for the many rodeo competitions he won, but he was also a famous firefighter. In the spring, he would visit the local high school and ask the students if they wanted to make money.
“They’d skip out of school in April or May, and that would be it, they’d learn how to fight fires,” Ryan said. Percy was dedicated, knew what he was doing, and was tough as nails. In Wildfire Wars, journalist Keith Keller described how Percy reacted when his leg was crushed by a bulldozer: They’d managed to keep him in hospital at Kamloops for a year or so, but after he got out he repeatedly frustrated his doctor by cutting his hip-length cast to below the knee so he could get back to riding horses. Finally the doctor sealed him in steel rods, but they only lasted until Minnabarriet had [his wife] Marie pick him up a new blade for his hacksaw.
As Ryan described getting ready for the fire, he said, “We had the knowledge sitting there waiting, not enough equipment. We
got out all the hoses that we did have. We had an emergency plan but we hadn’t practised or anything. We don’t have a fire truck, we don’t have really anything. We have a number of hoses, which we strung together. Our reservoir was small and we had a new reservoir built but it wasn’t online yet. We had the old reservoir, and it would run full blast for twenty minutes and that would be it. So it was a one-shot deal. But anyway we got organized and got the hoses and pumps out.”
After the preparations were completed, Ryan said, “We just waited. It probably took less than a half-hour before it got on the doorstep. We got to a critical point where the fire was coming straight into the community. A band member had some drip torches and brought those out. We lit our own back burn that stopped the fire from coming in and burning that first house. Once the first house caught, that would have been it. It would have jumped house to house, building to building. It would have gone through the whole community. It was critical to prevent it from getting to the first house. The wind was just right, we lit up the grass and it burned straight up the hill and created a guard for the community. At the same time, one of our band members with a skid steer [a piece of machinery that can pull, push or lift materials] made a firebreak to join the back burn to the highway.”
The fire blew up the west side of Cache Creek, came to the road crossing Bonaparte land, but didn’t burn over it. It paused, seemed to hesitate and then Ryan saw a “little bit of smoke” on the hill on the east side of Highway 97. He said, “They were doing bombers in Cache Creek at that time. It only would have taken one dump on that and we wouldn’t have burned the whole forest. I remember I was standing there, thinking we should run up there and just stomp that out. Of course we didn’t because we were protecting our houses. We were just looking at it. It was not an easy road to get there, but a couple of trucks with water tanks could have taken care of that.”
Was Ryan right? Could a simple intervention at this point have prevented the destruction that was to come? Armchair incident
commanders will no doubt have views about the situation. It is hard to know. On July 7, the BC Wildfire Service was overextended already, with 138 fires breaking out. In hindsight it may be easy to identify the ideal response, quite another to do it in the heat of action. In any case, the brief moment of possibility passed. Ryan turned his focus to the task at hand—saving the buildings under threat.
In the early evening, at 5:30 or 6:00, the Bonaparte First Nation asked the Cache Creek Fire Department if it could spare one of its trucks. Fortunately, Cache Creek had reached a brief hiatus in its own battle with the fire, which for a time was boxed into a canyon. It was able to fulfill the request. Later, around 4:00 in the morning on July 8, the BC Wildfire Service arrived to provide more help.
“Some forest service guys got on-site and came and put out little hot spots on the edge of the hill,” Ryan said. “They came
in a water truck and sprayed to make sure there was no possibility for flare-ups next to the houses. But the fire was still raging up the hill from us. The whole hillside opposite, the whole mountainside on the east side of the highway, was totally on fire. We kept an eye on it and kept rotating shifts through the night.”
The fire came within a hundred metres of the first house, and the community lost a derelict building that hadn’t been used in
years. But it saved forty homes, as well as the hall, the church, a preschool, the office and the brand new water treatment system. One save was quite a surprise. The fire burned all the way around one particular house and when Ryan peered at it through the dark smoke and shooting flames, he was sure it was gone. But then the air cleared and he could see the house was still standing. Ryan attributes this turn of events to the homeowner’s diligence. She was scrupulous about clearing away brush and weeds.
“The thinking was we absolutely have got to defend these houses,” Ryan said, “because it takes forever to rebuild houses through the Indian Act. It just gives you that much more motivation to protect them because you know if you don’t, people are going to be out of a home for a year or more.” In August 2017, with an idea of streamlining operations, the federal government replaced the agency serving First Nations. The Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada was dissolved and two new departments were created: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and Indigenous Services Canada.
Whether the change was enough to speed up the grind of bureaucracy remains to be seen. Two years later, the Ashcroft First Nation is still waiting for new homes to replace the twelve lost to the flames. “It’s slow going any way you cut it,” Ryan maintained. Even for the Bonaparte community, complete recovery will take time. Two-fifths of its watershed burned. Fireguards created during the fires made the land easily accessible to cars, trucks, 4 × 4s and unwanted visitors. Ryan has been holding monthly meetings with other affected First Nations communities and provincial forest managers to develop “fire salvage principles”—ways to ensure the land has the best chance to restore itself.
“The ecosystem is so fragile, you have to be careful about what you’re going to do,” he said. “Everybody is so worried about the economy and making sure the mills stay running, but if you do things irresponsibly, you can add another decade or two to the restoration of the forest.”
You don’t get over a fire as big as the Elephant Hill fire in a hurry.
“You see some pretty extraordinary sights,” Ryan recalled. “The size of the flames at night, the plumes of smoke that look like mushroom clouds, like nuclear bombs. And now when I drive through a valley and there is no wind and people are burning slash and the smoke is sitting in the valley, I’m back there instantly—that smell. It reminds you right away.”
But being “back there” is not always a bad thing. “We earned the respect of the firefighting crews that came in and everybody
involved because we stopped our community from getting wiped out. That was recognized across the province,” Ryan said. I could hear the pride in his voice. “Certainly, we would have been in trouble without the skills and knowledge we had.
“We knew what our limitations were and did the best with what we had. That was enough, fortunately.”