'I went through hell'

Man who started 2003 McLure wildfire reflects on life afterward

In late 2005, Mike Barre told a Kamloops courtroom he'd be forever haunted for his role in the McLure wildfire that devastated the North Thompson valley.

A decade later, now at age 60, Barre acknowledges the five years that followed that long, hot summer of 2003 were horrible. Not just for himself, but his family as well, he said.

Barre had to live with the fact it was his cigarette that sparked the 26,420-hectare forest fire that burned 72 homes and nine businesses and forced the evacuation of 3,800 people, many of them twice.

"I went through hell," Barre told The Daily News.

That burden would be heavy enough for anyone to carry, but the stigma wasn't his alone. Barre said his family carried it, too. His son, now 15, received the brunt of it. He was harassed non-stop by other children.

The pain of knowing what his boy endured because of what he did still hurts Barre today.

"It was horrible," he said. "It was my problem, but it affected everyone. It affected my family."

Barre keeps any talk of his family brief. He and his wife divorced, but not because of the fallout from the wildfire, he said. And his son is no longer harassed.

The family moved out of the province two years ago.

Barre worked at the transfer station in Barriere, a job that was permanent part-time. Ultimately, it didn't provide enough money. The move was strictly out of financial need, he said.

"There wasn't a lot of good-paying jobs in the Kamloops area," said Barre.

It might surprise some that Barre didn't pack up and leave immediately after his trial. Barre was ultimately convicted of dropping a lit substance within one kilometre of a forest and fined $3,000.

At the time, Judge William Sundhu said deterrence was the main purpose of sentencing. The fine needed to be large enough so everyone could understand they have a duty to act responsibly in B.C.'s forests.

Barre believes he was fortunate to receive the fine he did, saying he understood Sundhu handed out strict penalties. But there was an understanding that Barre paid a huge personal cost.

He's since made peace with what happened and doesn't think about it much anymore, he said. Barre turned to God in order to put the anxiety, sleepless nights and emotional turmoil behind him. He went to church and was consoled by his pastor.

"I've been a strong Christian off and on," he said, adding he was raised a Catholic.

He also volunteered in the community. By helping those he unintentionally harmed, Barre reconciled his guilt. As people were being evacuated, Barre picked up food and drinks and passed them out to evacuees, he said.

"They filled the church full of clothing and furniture and washers and dryers and stuff like that. So I helped inventory that and get it out," said Barre.

"I also helped rebuild the homes (that burned)."

Ironically, Barre didn't stop smoking. The stress was too much, he said. He still smokes to this day.

As the weeks turned into a month and months became years, Barre came to terms with what he'd done. Having the support of North Thompson residents helped.

During his trial, Barriere and McLure residents submitted a petition asking Sundhu to be lenient on him. Yes, there are some who were bitter and angry toward him. In the end, those who lost the most turned out to be the most forgiving, said Barre.

Rob Ruttan owns Country Store Antiques in Louis Creek. He lost the store and two homes, but rebuilt and found a way to forgive Barre. He believes most people in the North Thompson have.

"I don't think, as a whole, that anybody holds a grudge," said Ruttan. "Our feeling was he didn't do it on purpose. Certainly, it was negligence, but he didn't mean to (start the fire)."

As far as Ruttan is concerned, it could have happened to anybody who smokes, he said.

"He fessed up," said Ruttan, adding Barre phoned 911 as the fire started.

Barre said he was compelled to do the right thing, adding that's how he was raised.

Barriere Mayor Bill Humphreys said his community and the residents of McLure have, for the most part, moved on. There are a few negative people who are vocal. The rest look toward the future.

"People are resilient here," he said.

FILMON'S RECOMMENDATIONS WELL UNDERWAY, SAYS FIRE OFFICIAL

All 22 recommendations former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon made in his Firestorm 2003 review have been implemented or are in the process of being so, said the manager of the Kamloops Fire Centre.

"I think everything's been looked at," said Steve Schell. "There's been a concerted effort to look at everything."

In 2003, then premier Gordon Campbell hired Filmon to review the province's response to the 2003 wildfires. The document identifies what the province learned that summer and makes recommendations for the future.

Schell has a copy of the 100-page report at the fire centre where he was stationed in 2003 when his staff and crews battled the McLure, Strawberry Hill, McGillivray, Venables and Okanagan Mountain Park forest fires.

"I can't believe it's been 10 years. Everything is still fresh in the minds of our staff," said Schell. "This fire centre was hit really hard."

At the time, it was tough to reflect on what was happening, he said, people just survived.

Once the rains came and the weather cooled, there was time to explore what worked and what didn't, said Schell. That's where Filmon came in.

"These kinds of reviews do happen after large events," he said. "Alberta is going through one after the (Slave Lake) fires they had."

Schell recently flipped through Filmon's report with The Daily News. The document identified three areas the province needed to focus on, including fire suppression, fuel management and urban interface.

The report took into account the mountain pine beetle infestation and climate change and how they impact forest firefighting, he said.

Filmon's report gave birth to the FireSmart Manual, a guide for managing fire fuel - fallen branches, grasses and the like - on rural properties. Schell said FireSmart is now endorsed across Canada.

The manual breaks down fuel management into three zones starting at a home, barn or other structure, and 70 metres outside the home's perimeter. The first 10 metres around a home should be clear of shrubs, trees, deadfall and woodpiles in order to prevent a blaze from burning the building to the ground.

At the furthest point, trees, grasses and shrubs should be thinned so fires burn at a low intensity and are more easily extinguished.

Schell said FireSmart is a key initiative born from Filmon's report, but there are others.

The 2003 wildfires were the first to burn into communities on such a scale, he said. Practices were adopted to thin and clear forested areas around towns, villages and municipalities to prevent future devastation.

Schell said the work is similar to what's outlined in the FireSmart Manual. Prescribed burns, harvesting beetle kill and, in some cases, planting fire-resistant deciduous trees is also recommended.

The province conducted a pilot project in Merritt, but work has also been done in Logan Lake, Kamloops and other communities, he said.

"These are ongoing. They do take a while to complete," said Schell.

As far as the Opposition critic for Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources is concerned, fuel management is one part of Filmon's report where the province has fallen short.

Norm Macdonald said only 43,000 of the 1.7-million hectares of forest around communities believed to be at risk of fire have been treated for fuel management.

"That's about two per cent of what's been identified," said Macdonald.

Macdonald said the province of Alberta and FireSmart Canada suggest the B.C. government miscalculated how many hectares need to be treated and the amount is actually five times larger.

"They all warned that hazardous fuels in British Columbia now and in the future will make these wildfires more difficult to suppress and recommended treating larger areas as opposed to smaller areas," he said.

"That's something the province needs to turn its mind too."

Macdonald believes more needs to be done with the fuel as its cleared, saying the wood and other material could be used for community heating.

From an operational standpoint, Filmon called for an increase in firefighting personnel. In 2003, there were 110 three-person initial attack crews and 22 20-person unit crews in the province.

Today, there are 140 initial attack crews, including firefighters who rappel from helicopters and parachute into fire zones, said Schell. The province's fleet of air tankers now includes 14-contracted air tankers and seven bird dog aircraft.

In order to meet the public's demand for information, the province hired more fire information officers and went online with websites and social media providing up-to-the minute updates, said Schell.

jhewlett@kamloopsnews.ca

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