Jack Emberly.

Jack Emberly.

Along the Fraser: A chat about the Elephant Hill fire

Livestock have been rescued by volunteers like the 100 Mile Haulers

“Where’s the best place for breakfast?” I asked.

In Ashcroft, a woman on the corner of the main street pointed.

“Around the corner. Sam’s Restaurant.”

A menu board announced the soup of the day, but I just wanted coffee and a chat with locals about the Elephant Hill fire.

It destroyed homes on a First Nations Reserve, and more in nearby Boston Flats Trailer Park. Before reaching the village of 1,600 souls, the inferno cantered towards Cache Creek when the winds shifted.

By Aug. 2, it had galloped northward, consuming 80,000 hectares of forest and forcing the evacuation of Clinton about 40 kilometres north.

Lyle sat at a table waiting for his order. His house overlooks the Thompson River. For a while, a sage brush and grass fire on the railroad tracks at one end of town threatened his place.

“I was in Kamloops when it broke out. When I got back, the RCMP stopped me. I had to get my dog out. They let me go in at my own risk.”

From his property, Lyle watched three helicopters buzz feverishly above until they’d doused the blaze.

“Endless buckets of water and retardant. I worked for the company in Kamloops that makes most of that ‘slurry’. It contains fertilizer to make the water drop quickly. The red’s rust [iron oxide] is added so they can see it drop. In Australia, everything’s red, so they add our blueberries to make the mix blue.”

Lyle said one of the ’copters that saved his place was equipped with a sucker bucket. They’re designed to quickly suck up to 350 gallons of water from shallow sources like a river and refill in minutes. Air tankers drop more, but might not reappear for half an hour.

“They were so close we could feel the spray,” Lyle recalls. “It felt good,” he added.

“You know, the media said we were evacuated, but we were just on alert. The fire, Elephant Mountain, not Hill, never came into the village, but it killed a lot of animals, especially the ones with burrows under the ground. I feel sorry for them.”

Livestock have been rescued by volunteers like the 100 Mile Haulers, but many animals perished.

“I’m been around ranches a lot,” Lyle told me. “Cattle don’t have feeling in their feet. They’d walk through hot ash and burn them off. You see some walking on bones. When they die in fires, their bellies blow out.”

Lyle knew a local rancher who saved a neighbour’s milk cows.

“Trace de Boer at the Bar M Ranch, a couple of kilometres up the hill towards Logan Lake,” he said.

“Lyle told me about you,” I said.

“I didn’t do that much,” de Boer began. “On the 7th, a gust of wind came up. We’ve a cattle liner, and truck full of fuel. Bradner Farms [nearby site] called us at 12:30 a.m. on the 8th. At 1 a.m., we were over there to haul some stock out. It was eerie going in, flames both sides of the road. We inched along to avoid the downed power lines, loaded about 35 holsteins on the truck. Milk cows have to be milked every day. One of the cows, we were told later, was a prize show cow worth $200,000. My son Craig drove them to Abbotsford.”

An employee at Bradner Farms in Abbotsford told me the livestock were safe and sound.

Ashcroft – a history linked to the Cariboo Gold Rush – sits on a lovely sun-soaked mesa. In the hills, you’d find prickly pear cactus, sage brush, rattlesnakes, and chuckers (quail).

Farms produce the best fruits and vegetables found anywhere. People are neighbourly.

Before heading for Clinton, I talked to Khiara, and her grandmother. They were selling lemonade to help buy a generator for their fire department.

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.