B.C. Fire Victims Count The Costs

by Ray Dick

A helicopter drops water on a forest fire that has advanced to the outskirts of Kelowna, B.C. A single but slightly damaged red rose grows defiantly within damaged vineyards after the Kelowna fires have been controlled.

Life is slowly returning to normal in south central British Columbia. The children have gone back to school, businesses are reopening and thousands of residents are sifting through the ashes for treasures of their former homes before rebuilding after the worst forest fire season in the western province for the last 100 years.

“We still have 503 wildfires burning,” B.C. Forest Service information officer Mary-Ann Leach said in an interview in late September. “But it’s later in the season, there has been some rain, the weather has been cooler and most of the fires still burning are in the mop-up or control stage.”

Provincial emergency officials were keeping their fingers crossed, however. The long range forecast called for more hot and dry weather in a continuation of a drought season that has prevailed for the last three years.

By late September some 2,476 wildfires had been reported across the province. In an average fire season there are 2,000. It has also been expensive. The costs of fighting the fires so far this season has been $356 million. And although the fires cost no civilian lives, one helicopter pilot and two tanker pilots were lost on duty as thousands of firefighters from across the country, including more than 2,600 soldiers, sailors and airmen and women, fought to control the flames that threatened communities and historical sites in the hard hit areas of south central B.C.

The Canadian Forces firefighters now have returned to their bases after 45 days of fighting the flames. Dubbed Operation Peregrine and led by Land Force Western Area in Edmonton, it was the longest running domestic operation by the Forces in the last 10 years. And the cooling temperatures and rain have allowed provincial forestry officials to reopen the province to back country travel “if absolutely necessary.”

And while the province’s emergency program, the Canadian Red Cross, the Salvation Army, The Royal Canadian Legion and other groups swiftly came to the aid of the fire victims, the more than 50,000 residents forced to flee their homes will never be the same when they look out at the green mountain valleys and thickly forested hillsides of the B.C. interior.

One of those evacuees, President Cliff Hart of Kamloops, B.C., Branch, related his personal experience with the fire raging around his community.

“I was at the Legion and I could see smoke rising from the area where my house was about 14 kilometres away in a suburb of Kamloops. I thought I had better go home, and perhaps do something to try and save my new home, or at least to move the motor home that was sitting in the driveway. But I didn’t make it. I was stopped by a police roadblock and was told there was no way anyone was going into that area. I called my wife on the cell phone and told her to grab the little dog and leave. My wife and I stayed with friends for four days before we could return home to see if the house was still there or what damage had been done.”

He was lucky. Firefighters had stopped the blaze about 12 feet away from his house. The big trees beside his house were still standing. “But not for long,” says Hart. He will be taking no more chances with forest fires.

Kamloops Branch donated $10,000 to local relief efforts for his community and a further $10,000 is being set aside from poppy funds to be sent to a relief program organized by British Columbia/Yukon Command for the fire victims.

It was a similar but more drastic situation in the Okanagan Valley community of Kelowna, where 250 homes were lost, sawmills were consumed by the flames and thousands of residents evacuated to temporary lodging in schools and community centres. Kelowna Branch President Frank Truman said there was little the branch could do except donate money to the relief agencies like the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and food banks. “The emergency services geared up quickly, housing evacuees in hotels, motels, schools and recreation centres. Food vouchers were provided, and local businessmen stocked up the food banks with donations.”

Funds to aid the fire victims have rolled in to the British Columbia/Yukon Command office and a fund of some $40,000 to date has been collected from B.C. branches.

“Many of the fire victims had insurance,” said Assistant Secretary Laura Rallis. “But some were particularly hard hit, like in Barriere where many trailer homes and even the sawmills that provided a livelihood were lost. They lost their homes and their jobs. We are thinking of expanding our appeal across the country.”

And the Canadian Red Cross announced in late September that it had collected some $2.4 million in donations to help those victims who have no insurance or other resources. The agency, along with the Salvation Army and other groups, have been active in all the fire-threatened areas and as the crisis deepened in Barriere it had set up an office in the North Thompson Valley Branch, described as “a cool, welcome basement refuge where clients could come in out of the fierce heat to meet with Red Cross volunteers and tell their stories.”

While the fire victims await government safety net assistance, such as employment insurance, the Red Cross and other agencies help fill the gaps for rent, food and other unmet needs that include everything from eyeglasses to medicines and dentures.

The clean-up will continue for months. And although forestry officials have lifted their ban on back country travel, they also warned that a province-wide state of emergency remains in effect.

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