Barriere: a decade later

Marking the 10th anniversary of the 2003 Barriere wildfire isn't something to celebrate, like a wedding date or a birthday. It's not a happy occasion to remember; it's not an excuse to revel in memories that provoke smiles and laughs.

It was a devastating, far-reaching event with serious impacts.

Looking back after a decade has passed gives us a chance to see how a community has proceeded after the fires caused physical destruction and emotional distress; more than 26,000 hectares burned, 72 homes were lost and a mill that provided 180 jobs fell to ash.

The summer of 2003 was a scorcher that dried up the fields and forests, leaving them vulnerable to the smallest spark. Near McLure, that spark came in the form of a cigarette recklessly tossed out by Michael Barre.

The Daily News is looking at how the community has recovered, lessons learned, help given and promises made.

It's a look back at the impact of wildfires that still threaten the region every summer when the sun blazes hot and the rain doesn't fall.

BARRIERE RESIDENTS' LIVES WENT ON AFTER FIRES WENT OUT

A decade has passed since the air around Barriere was choked with smoke, the hillsides glowed with flame and people were forced to flee their homes.

The 2003 wildfire that wiped out the Tolko mill and several homes didn't destroy the community's spirit, and most rebuilt their buildings and their lives after the fire cooled and the smoke cleared.

Keith and Ann Willis had already been burned out of their home by a forest fire in 2000 when they were evacuated from their Barriere residence three years later.

Their house survived the fire and 10 years later, the couple still lives in Barriere. But they downsized to a smaller house closer to downtown.

In the end, the lost a freezer, a fridge and replaced a kitchen floor. The community lost a sawmill and a grocery store, as well as a few other businesses and some homes.

Keith Willis worked for Argo Road maintenance and retired last year. He still helps out in winter, but is now free to go fishing in warmer weather.

Friends whose house burned at nearby Badger Creek have rebuilt, but probably have him to thank for getting out. Willis said he's not certain what compelled him to call them about the evacuation orders, but he did. The family hadn't been notified.

"I called them on the phone and told them to get the hell out of there," he said.

"Everything was kind of disorganized. Nobody knew what was going on. When we were in Kamloops, we were being told Barriere was burnt. It wasn't."

The fire burned in odd ways. Argo's location wasn't touched, but the trailer next door was gutted. The fire burned around a church and Jehovah's Witness hall.

Willis credited the people who stayed to fight the fire with saving Barriere. In the end, it didn't really affect him, he said.

"It's past. Can't change anything."

Michael Machny was one of the Tolko sawmill workers whose job disappeared in the wildfire.

"I couldn't find a job. No one was hiring for eight months. Then I worked for Canfor in Vavenby for a couple of years," he said.

Many of his co-workers moved to Salmon Arm or Merritt.

"They sold their places and just took off. The ones who stayed for different reasons, took on different jobs. They went to Alberta, they commuted to feed their families," he said.

"I think the suicide rate went up and drug consumption. I know several people who committed suicide after. And the crime rate went up."

Eventually, Machny shifted into a career in finance. Working at the mill was always supposed to be temporary, but the fire forced him to seek other options.

He studied business administration at Thompson Rivers University and now works as a financial adviser in Kamloops.

Machny still lives in Barriere, not by choice but because he hasn't found a buyer for his home.

"One part is the housing market, the other part is they haven't done much there in the past 10 years. If you look at Barriere today, you have the impression the fire happened yesterday," he said.

"You still see some devastation."

For him, the attraction was the wilderness around the community. But he would like to move to a rural house closer to his job in Kamloops.

Ken MacDougall lost three of his 65 cattle, two or three kilometres of fencing and a lot of timber to the wildfire. He now has 50 head of cattle and Community Futures helped rebuild the fence to keep them contained.

At the time of the fire, ranchers were reeling from the economic impacts of mad cow disease. Losing thousands of hectares of grazing land and, in some cases, buildings and livestock, just added to an already bad situation.

Those who held out, however, did get back on their feet.

MacDougall noticed that once the soil recovered, the forage improved and new growth sprouted where everything was blackened.

"After the fire, I went out and thought there would never be anything. Then there was a clay slime on top. Over a couple of years, that breaks down and there's new soil and new plants," he said.

"Definitely there was a year where there was nothing. A neighbour let me go up on the range the following year. Now I'm back on it."

He has returned to growing alfalfa and orchard grass and sees more deer and other wildlife returning each year.

"The actual forage is a little better. That'll change as the trees grow back. So in another 10 years or so, it'll be back to what it was before the fire."

While his cattle have lots to eat now that the forage is flourishing, there is one downside. There are no trees to shade his cows.

The loss of timber on his land hurt. At the time, prices were high and the extra income helped. Then he lost trees to the flames and prices fell for what little he had left.

The Mitchell Cattle Company lost between 10 and 13 cattle and the feed on three grazing ranges.

"We were really lucky, nothing burned on our farm but one tree," said Anja Mitchell.

Keeping track of 350 cows plus calves and bulls in three different ranges during the wildfires was a daunting task and they even used helicopters to find clusters of cattle standing together.

"It's amazing how many survived," she said.

Mitchell said they even forged a new friendship with an Alberta farmer who provided hay when the range couldn't. They still keep in touch.

The fire coupled with the mad cow scare was a double whammy to the ranch, but they have kept going.

"We've lost a lot, at times, as have others. But we've changed our management plan and it's helping," she said.

"When bad things happen, opportunities come along with them. You regroup and you make the best of it."

MCLURE FIRE DESTROYED, BUT ALSO RENEWED, THE LAND

"It could happen again. It really could. You see what happens in the States right now, but it could happen here."

Peter Lishman, Kamloops forest district operations manager, saw first-hand what occurred when 26,324 hectares of land went up in flames in the 2003 McLure wildfire.

Fire is a natural event in nature, and even the most human-controlled efforts will only stave it off for so long.

In 2003, a lengthy bout of parching heat combined with a tossed cigarette butt and the fire was unleashed.

Lishman said a natural fire would have burned more in patches if there were regular, smaller flare-ups. But there was so much for the flames to feed on, that the 2003 blaze consumed huge areas and it jumped back and forth across the North Thompson River.

The McLure fire, which reached to Barriere and Louis Creek, charred 26,324 hectares of mostly forested or agricultural land and burned 3.6 million cubic metres of wood - 63 per cent of which was in timber harvest land base. About 600 kilometres of agricultural fencing was destroyed, roughly 200 kilometres of it around Barriere.

Barriere rancher Ludie Proulx lost some of his 150 head of cattle to the wildfires and half his grazing range burned. When the trees burned, it left parts of the range less protected and more vulnerable to drying out.

"It's been a tough 10 years," he said.

Greg Tegart, Interior B.C. regional manager for the Ministry of Agriculture, said when the soil is as dry as it was in 2003, fire can get extremely hot, extremely fast.

It burns into the root zones of the grasses as well as the trees, and will even turn some of the soil's organic matter to ash.

The short-term consequence is dust and erosion, and a change in vegetation.

"Mother Nature is pretty resilient in a lot of respects. There is secondary or primary succession. The plant species start over again if they're there," he said.

"You will have some species that regrow if the roots have not been completely burnt out."

But even under the ashes, by the year following the wildfire, there were sprouts of green pushing through, Tegart said.

Often those plants are annual species, which typically grow first on a fire-ravaged site. But there's also a vulnerability for weeds to set in.

"If the natural growth is gone, there's an opening for other species to take over. It can take several decades for some species to return, depending on the conditions," he said.

"Any of the grass species that come back in will provide some forage for cattle."

Irrigated fields would have less chance of fire getting into the plant roots, Tegart said. Those crops could be re-established.

"The difference is farmland, you've lost a fair amount of infrastructure through the fire and less quality or loss of crop. But you would be able to redeploy your cultivation to jump into the game next year."

After the fire, efforts were made to replace some of the fencing while forage began to flourish. Ranchers, already struggling due to mad cow disease export restrictions, were suspended from using Crown range for a year. They also lost livestock or had animals with health problems to deal with, and those with private land timber saw that burned up, too.

But along with the new growth coming from the ground came renewed wildlife to graze on it.

Proulx has seen that, estimating he'd spot 15 to 20 deer in the hay fields before the wildfire and now can count up to 120 at a time.

Some of the undergrowth has come back too well, he said.

"There are places where jack pine and lodgepole pine are so thick you can't get in there," he said.

Chris Procter, regional wildlife biologist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said the 2003 wildfire boosted the number of deer and moose, and subsequently wolves, cougars, bears and other wildlife.

"In a nutshell, it's been great for forage production, especially some key forage plants for deer and moose," he said.

Food has been so abundant that deer are regularly giving birth to two fawns and having a high survival rate.

"There's wolves there now. When you have more prey, there's generally more predators," said Procter.

Smaller mammals, including rodents, bobcats and foxes, also benefited from the after-fire flourish. So have birds of prey and some other bird species.

It hasn't been so good for creatures that rely on older growth, like flammulated owls and Lewis's woodpecker, which was listed as endangered in 2006.

Along with the increase in wildlife has come an increase in hunters and poachers. Procter said motor vehicle restrictions have had to be brought in to the burn areas to ensure hunting limits are respected.

Eventually, the shrubs will get taller, less palatable and less nutritious for deer and moose and their numbers will drop, but that might not be for another 10 years or so, he said.

By that stage, the trees are getting big enough to provide more protective cover.

Salvage logging was done for two years following the fires, but there was a move to get tree seedlings into the ground as soon as possible, said Lishman.

"We had a fair amount of seedlings ready. We did most of the planting within three months of the fire. The fire started in August, was out by Christmas and we were planting by March," he said.

"By planting, you get about a 10-year jump on nature. That fire burned so hot, it affected a lot of seed sources."

More than one million trees went into the ground for future logging and for erosion control around creeks, and natural aspens are coming back. There were also areas seeded with forage for cattle and wildlife, he said.

Ten years later, most of the land around Barriere is back to its former use. Proulx said he didn't get hit with the emotional impact of the fires until months after the smoke had cleared.

Even now, he is not sure how to describe his ambivalence about his post-fire life.

"I don't know if I'm any better off or worse. . . . But I talked to a guy who said it probably took three years off his life," he said.

"I'm still here. But I'd rather the fire didn't happen."

myoung@kamloopsnews.ca

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