Community comes to the rescue in crisis

By on February 7, 2018
Smoky skies over the Bar FX Ranch in Shulus. (Photo courtesy of Rhonda MacDonald).

 

Julia Smith co-founded the Blue Sky Ranch, located just outside of Merritt where she raises pigs. When the wildfire season took off during the summer of 2017, Smith was forced to scramble together an evacuation plan for the ranch.


by Julia Smith
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD

On a beautiful day in July last year, I found myself sitting in my office overlooking our pastures and woodlands watching the weather roll in. Like many B.C. farmers and ranchers, I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of some much needed rain but dreading the lightning that had also been forecast.

I used to love a good “thunder boomer.” I’ve even been known to go storm chasing. But that was another time, another life. As a rancher in the Nicola Valley, the word “lightning” fills me with dread and anxiety.

It seemed as if we had gone straight from flood season to fire season. One minute, it had been too wet to burn the giant piles of dead wood we pulled out of the forest and the next minute there was a fire ban. Our property had basically become an all you can eat buffet for fires and we hadn’t had a drop of rain since May.

It isn’t like we didn’t know about the fire risk. That’s why we started clearing the dead fall out in the first place. We put the pigs into the forest to clear the brush, which enables us get in with the chainsaw and start clearing out the big stuff. But we are far from finished the job and were not at all prepared for one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.

As the summer progressed, things went from bad to worse. Wildfires raged throughout the Southern Interior and the Cariboo, threatening homes, livestock, ranges and roads.

At one point we had small fires on either side of our mountain and could even see the smoke from one of them. Thankfully they were extinguished before they got out of control. For the most part, we were relatively safe and sound here in the Nicola Valley. Unfortunately that was not the case for a lot of folks.

It was uplifting and inspiring to see the response to the crisis and how communities and perfect strangers pulled together.

Evacuating livestock can be a whole lot more complicated than evacuating people and that is one part of our fire plan that was an obvious weak point. How to quickly move 120 pigs? Cattle ranchers often just open the gates and hope for the best but pigs are different. I can’t just jump on my horse and go round up my pigs after a fire. There’s no rounding up pigs. Not only are they damn unruly and un-herdable, they are destructive and I certainly did not want to be responsible for a new feral hog population ravaging the Southern Interior. So throwing open the gates was not an option.

We have a number of trailers but only one truck that can tow them. Even if we had enough trucks for all the trailers, we could only move two or three of our fully grown pigs in any one trailer. So I put a call out on Facebook and put together a list of people we could call to move all our pigs quickly off the mountain and down to the relative safety of the rodeo grounds in town. Once there, friends from the coast could come and pick them up and move them to the Fraser Valley if needed. This was the biggest relief. Caring for livestock is a huge responsibility and knowing that we had a plan made us feel a whole lot better.

Ranchers scramble together during fires

But while our evacuation plans remained just that — plans — others were not quite as fortunate.

There were a number of Facebook groups and mapping apps bringing together ranchers who needed help with people who could help them. I listed us as available to haul and host livestock and people. I have to admit, it was pretty stressful taking the truck and trailer away from home. If a fire broke out here while we were away, we may not have be able to come back due to road closures and evacuations. But when our friends at Singing Lands Ranch called for a rescue on that day in July we were grateful to be in a position to help.

First thing the next morning, Ludo and I headed up the very smokey Deadman Valley to evacuate 10 pigs. At 56 kilometres up a long, winding, narrow gravel road, Singing Lands Ranch is well and truly isolated. The Loon Lake fire was only 20 km away and moving quickly in their direction. It was an eerie feeling to see the sky becoming darker and darker at 1:00 in the afternoon. The smoke muffled all sounds and four RCMP vehicles cruised silently by with their lights flashing as they went around making sure everyone in the area knew about the evacuation alert. It took some doing (and two bags of chips) but we finally had all the pigs loaded in the trailer and were happy to be heading back to the relative safety of home where the wildfire refugees were welcomed with yoghurt and much fresher air.

The pigs at Blue Sky Ranch remained safe during the forest fires this season, but Julia Smith was forced to scramble together an evacuation plan just in case. (Photo courtesy of Julia Smith).

Stories like this played out all over the Nicola Valley last summer as local farmers and ranchers came together with whatever time and resources they could spare. Nelson and Danielle Patry donated hay and hosted horses evacuated from the Princeton area. In Shulus, Rhonda MacDonald of Bar FX Ranch knew she had to do something to help.

“I couldn’t imagine being in the position that some of those people were, with a massive fire threatening not only their homes but their livestock as well. Many didn’t have any means to get their animals to safety, and must have been frantic,” said MacDonald, who hooked up her horse trailer and headed to the Barriere fairgrounds.

She spent the day feeding and cleaning stalls for over 200 horses and transported many to various locations in Kamloops and the surrounding area, including her own ranch.

The outpouring of support for people and animals affected by the worst wildfire season in B.C. history was heartwarming and really brought our community together.

“My hat goes off to the people who worked around the clock to get livestock to safety. It’s unreal how so many people devoted not only their time but their personal finances in the form of fuel, equipment and time to make this happen,” said MacDonald.

While the fires were devastating for many people, a lot more of us will be better prepared for next time (and there will be a next time).

“The whole summer certainly brought to light the need to be prepared for a disaster like this” said MacDonald, who cautioned horse owners to make sure ahead of time that their horses will load onto a trailer. “The number of horses that had to be left behind because the volunteers could not get them to load was heartbreaking.”

As for us, we still have a lot of work to do on the property — clearing brush, cutting down trees that are too close to buildings and refining our evacuation plan. Fire preparedness will be an ongoing priority, but at least we know that we can count on the help and support of local farmers and ranchers when wildfires strike.

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