Monday, July 31, 2017

Notes from the Evacuation Zone....

Thursday – I was on my way to from Prince George to a class reunion and some work in the Prince George office. I was riding up with a former classmate who I had not seen in 30 years. She picked me up from Scott Road Station and we hit the highway.
We had spent the past two weeks monitoring the forest fire situation in the interior of the province, not knowing if we were going to be able to drive at all, or if we were going to have to take the long way around over the Coquihalla and the Yellowhead highway.  We spent most of that time assuming the latter.
Wednesday night I checked the road reports again – Hwy 97 was closed, as It had been for weeks from Lac La Hache to Williams Lake and Williams Lake to McLeese Lake. The evacuation order had only been reduced from “Evacuation Order” to “Evacuation Alert” in the previous 24 hours… but the Highways were still closed.  The next update would be early morning.
On my way to SkyTrain I checked again – no change apart from when the next update would be – around 12:30.
My ride made a pretty significant navigation error and ended up picking me up about an hour late. We hit the highway and compared notes – we both had the same information – Hwy 97 closed, so we were heading for the Yellowhead.
But when we made the almost obligatory stop in Chilliwack we stopped in Tim Horton’s and while ordering a turkey BLT my phone sent me an alert (I love living in the future. My phone, based on my past searches, figured that I would like to know that the 12:30 update had been released.) announcing that Hwy 97 was now open.  So we changed our plan and decided to take the short route.  Ironically, if she had picked me up on time we would now have been well on our way around the long way.
As we cleared the north end of the canyon we saw our first signs of forest fire – four distant columns of smoke. Never a good sight, but one that anyone who has grown up in the interior takes as a given, just one you don’t want to see close up or often.
Soon enough we were coming up on Cache Creek and we got our first taste of the strange.
First some burn-scarred field.  Then a LOT of burn-scarred field. Soon one entire side of the highway was a moonscaped hillside – totally devoid of life.  The highway had deliberately or accidentally served as a fire break and the East side of the highway was relatively healthy… for a while.  But soon it too was blackened and we could see the telltale signs of what had once been buildings and other unidentifiable slag.  But there were weird, creepy, yet thankful exceptions.
There were places where the burn line suddenly and inexplicably stopped, possibly halted, mere meters from homes in a long line by a shift in the wind.
In one case a single lonely home lay in a shallow valley surrounded on all sides by black – all the way up to the porch, yet entirely untouched by actual fire.  One imagines a determined homeowner fighting fire on all sides… or perhaps the house itself was simply inflammable compared to the intensity of fire that knocked upon its door.
To the west, it was easy to imagine Brodie helmeted troops “going-over-the-top” to charge their way to a trench 100 yards closer to Cache Creek. The land was that barren.
Driving into Cache Creek proper revealed clear evidence of desperate fire fighting techniques as everywhere one looked you could see orangey-red fire retardant somewhere in front of you.
While stopped for gas and to update the family by phone of our progress I was approached by another motorist about what I knew about the highway north. The content of the conversation was pretty pedestrian, but the tone was sober. We both suspected that what we’d witnessed in the last few dozen kilometers was just the tip of the iceberg. We were right.
Just North of Cache Creek, looking eastward we could see more smoke rising in columns, but this was closer than usual and it was ugly looking smoke.  The convection currents it was creating were as strong as I have ever seen.  Rather than the billows of smoke rising and curling into the sky in an ominous, but almost gentle fashion that you had to concentrate on to see changes, this was a violent brown coil, changing moment to moment. Mother nature drunk and dirty and flipping the bird at an entire valley.
Soon the road was wet – signs of passing, but missed rain.  No doubt a welcome sight.  And in minutes we caught up to it. Hard. A rain where one is obliged to slow down because even at full speed, the wipers cannot really improve visibility. A rain whose intensity cannot sustain. There is simply no way the sky can hold that much water for long. A rain that while certainly of use to the parched area we were driving through would be far more welcome back and the sickly magical spire of hades we had just passed.
And then the signs started appearing.  Hand-painted, spray-painted, hastily and carelessly on sheets of water damaged warped plywood.  Each one with the same simple, uninspired verbiage with a heartfelt inspiring message – “Welcome home.” Now we were impostors. By being on the road with our momentum cast into the heart of the province we had a substantial head start on evacuees. Skipping ahead to today, it is clear that with scattered exceptions most of the earliest ones to return will actually be on their way this morning. But yesterday, we were among the first few hundred people other than those on the front lines to be headed to the evacuation zone. And while we were in a sense headed home, the message was absolutely not for us.
Just south of Lac la Hache, at the edge of the evacuation zone we were stopped at a check-point. We were met by a mix of a few dozen police, members of the military and ununiformed workers – whether they were fire-support, actual fire fighters or highways or a combination of was unclear. The road was blocked off.  We had been expecting this. We waved and thanked people for their work – again feeling a bit like we were masquerading as the displaced. A young man in fatigues approached the car and informed us that we could not proceed without police escort and that we would have to wait for the next one to arrive, bringing a convoy southwards to this edge of the zone. The wait would be about fifteen minutes he figured.
He had overestimated by about fifty percent, which was a pleasant surprise when we were on our way sooner than expected.
And then things really started to get surreal. 
The black scored fields south of Cache Creek were now replaced with charcoal spectres of trees burned down to their cores. Just as many miracle homes scattered the haunting landscape… and weirdest of all was the complete lack of life. Many building had lights left on, but no one was home. Anywhere.
It was like a scene out of an apocalyptic film or TV show. One expected zombies to stagger around the corners of a corner store, but even that would have been more activity than we saw for mile after mile – occasionally interrupted by a large military vehicle lumbering along in the opposite direction – just to highlight the air of being where a battle had recently been waged. If you’ve seen the Gareth Edwards’ film “Monsters” and recall the end of the film on the American side of the exclusion zone, that was how it felt… minus the giant luminescent squid.
Apart from the occasional roadside encampment of the previously mentioned mix of workers, police and military there was no sign of humanity for kilometer after kilometer – occasionally front porch lights were on, but no indication anyone was truly at home, punctuated by places where a single house had lost the wildfire lottery, tucked among surviving structures which had mysteriously been spared. In one case one end of what appeared to be a motel was charred and collapsed where the other end still had lights on.
Arriving in Williams’ Lake a few businesses were open along the highway, yet still the overall activity level hovered only just above the background noise of loneliness.
Approaching McLeese Lake we once again were hit by rain that was remarkable in its’ hammering intent. I imagine that if we were outside that the rain would have smelled similar to yet another downpour that would hit two days later in Prince George where the pre-storm ozone would give over to an odour like wet charcoal… who knew the air could be that infused with particulate? And yet, of course it was, why hadn’t that occurred to me sooner?
That marked the worst of it. Though walking about six blocks through downtown Prince George the next day I overheard three separate conversations that revealed the participants to be evacuees.  Which was startling, but should not have been surprising considering the temporary population of the city was now about 1/8th evacuee.  Later that afternoon I would witness one of the very evacuees I’d previously identified casing a friend’s vehicle.  I expect if we had not come out of the bookstore we were in almost as quickly as we had entered that there would have been a break-in instead of an awkward attempt to pretend nothing untoward had been going on.
I expect that most evacuees are less desperate, more grateful and better inclined to carry civic-pride up the road from their proper home to their temporary one, but no doubt this was not an isolated incident.
Our trip home was considerably less remarkable.

William’s Lake has much more life – having had three days’ worth of time for evacuees to return. That was an effort that was still very much continuing with signs directing returnees where to go as they came home. I don’t really know if returnees were expected to check in before going home, or the other way around. Do they check in and get the good or bad news before they have to see it first hand? Or do they go home and then come to register for any resource support they now need?

But still a substantial portion of the evacuation zone was once again closed, requiring us to detour from 100 Mile House through to the Coquihalla – including through some previously evacuated areas like Little Fort, but nowhere was the ambiance of disaster so prevalent, except arguable in Barriere which had its own fire only a few summers ago which is still very evident and at the same time it is encouraging to see the black wizards of old trees surrounded by the verdant green of Mother Nature bringing back life to that corner of the world.