On a warm fall day in September, Ryan Cawkwell pushed his young son on a swing set at their home in the Paxton Valley near Monte Lake, B.C., thinking back on his family’s summer of fire.
Only weeks before, Cawkwell and a collection of his friends and neighbours had been bouncing over rutted logging roads in a convoy of pickup trucks — dust and wood smoke swirling around them — heading back into an ongoing wildfire.
The White Rock Lake wildfire’s main front had already hammered the valley once, levelling houses, destroying ranchland and killing cattle. By the time Cawkwell’s ragtag (and unofficial) community firefighting team headed back into the evacuation zone, the worst of the fire had moved on. But residents knew one nasty wind could whip up the flames again and more houses could be lost.
It wasn’t the first time the valley’s residents had ignored the evacuation order. Despite being ordered to leave as the fire approached, many residents of the valley and the nearby town of Monte Lake had initially stayed behind to fight the encroaching flames. Some, like Cawkwell’s crew, remained inside the evacuation zone for hours, soaking their properties until the last possible minute, before mounting a tactical retreat as the flames bore down on them. Others stayed through the entire assault, trying desperately to save their homes and livelihoods.
In some cases, they succeeded. When Cawkwell and his neighbours returned home, they found blackened earth around many properties — including Cawkwell’s — where the fire swept right up to the fence line but stopped. On a neighbour’s property overlooking the valley, the front lawn was scorched within inches of the patio, but the house survived nearly unscathed.
In other places, the arbitrary fury of the fires was obvious: One house spared; another razed to its foundation. Half a garden charred to ash, the other half wilted from the heat but otherwise untouched. Outbuildings obliterated within feet of a home that survived.
The White Rock Lake wildfire hammered B.C.'s Paxton Valley last summer, levelling houses, destroying ranchland and killing cattle. But even after the worst of the fire had moved on, residents knew one nasty wind could whip up the flames again.
The chaos of the summer changed and traumatized the valley. For Cawkwell’s family, the greatest impact was on his son.
“He was always saying, ‘Daddy, don’t go to the fire,’” Cawkwell said. Even now, months later, “any time he sees smoke coming out of a chimney, he thinks the building is going to burn down,” Cawkwell said. “It’s really hard to see.”
Cawkwell says he’s left with a lingering bitterness over the government’s firefighting efforts, which were no match for the fire, and the public criticism he and his neighbours endured for defying the evacuation order to try to save their homes.
The White Rock Lake fire was a monster, and Cawkwell says he understands the limits of B.C. Wildfire Service’s capabilities. But he wishes there was more respect for individual families like his who only wanted to help.
Locals like Cawkwell were excoriated during a press conference by Mike Farnworth, the province’s public safety minister, when he lashed out at homeowners who stayed behind during a press conference. The minister’s comments sparked an outpouring of shaming and attacks on social media, leaving Cawkwell feeling let down. “You know, the government is supposed to help us in a state of emergency, but instead we basically got shunned for trying to save our livelihoods.”
The single biggest threat to our forests is fire
Climate change has created warmer, drier, longer summers, and with that come megafires — monster conflagrations that can burn 40,000 hectares or more. Along with insect infestations and industrial logging, fire is one of the biggest threats to Canada’s forests. Every year, it lays waste to vast swaths of pine forests in B.C.’s Interior and huge tracts of the spruce, fir and jack pine in the boreal forest, which covers a wide belt across the midsection of the Prairie provinces, Ontario and Quebec, and ends at the farthest reaches of Labrador.
More than four million hectares of Canadian forest went up in flames over the summer, more than double the area burned in the U.S. over the same time period, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre’s final fire report of 2021, issued Sept. 15. Across the border, wildfire season now extends into the winter, razing forests and threatening communities as late as December.
B.C. suffered the third-worst fire season on record, with more than 889,000 hectares burned: more than twice the 10-year average. Even more trees were lost in Manitoba (1,264,000+ ha) and massive swaths of boreal forest also burned in Saskatchewan (849,000+ ha) and Ontario (773,000+ ha). Across the country, there were more evacuation events this year than ever before.
As firefighting resources are stretched thin, the more likely it becomes that people will ignore evacuation orders and try to save their own properties, like Cawkwell and his neighbours did this past summer. It’s happening around the world. Residents risked their lives to face off against California’s devastating CZU Lightning Complex fire in 2020 near Boulder Creek, and again this year as the Dixie Fire bore down on Genesee, Calif. In Australia, where government policy allows residents to stay and defend their homes if they so choose, 173 people died on Feb. 7, 2009 — so-called Black Saturday — when evacuation orders came late and a bushfire engulfed whole communities across the state of Victoria. Many people died in their homes or on congested roadways trying to flee at the last minute, unprepared to face the fury of the oncoming fire.
In Canada, residents defied evacuation orders to protect their homes against the 2015 Rock Creek fire in B.C., and two years later, ranchers whose homes were threatened near 100 Mile House did likewise.
Apart from the immediate threat to human life and obvious property damage, there is another insidious consequence.
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, across the country in 2018, wildfires caused the release of roughly 250 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, on top of more than 700 million tonnes released by human activities, and higher than emissions from oil and gas, transportation, or agriculture that year.
Canada already spends, on average, $900 million per year fighting wildfires. The number is expected to grow to between $1 billion and $1.4 billion, depending on how much the climate continues to warm. This is one of the ways climate change is stressing Canada’s infrastructure, and it only stands to get worse.
The ability of governments to fight fires directly may be reaching the limits of economic and physical effectiveness, according to wildfire expert Mike Flannigan. In recent years, provincial governments have routinely called on support from the Canadian Armed Forces, other provinces, our American neighbours and even countries as far afield as Australia and Mexico.
In B.C.’s three worst wildfire seasons on record — 2017, 2018 and 2021 — the province declared states of emergency, imported wildfire fighters from other countries and called in the army for help. This summer, Manitoba and Ontario also summoned soldiers into the fight as support from other provinces and closer allies like the U.S. was unavailable because those agencies were too busy fighting their own out-of-control wildfires.
Fighting fires alone
Cawkwell, Kody Kruesel and several other friends had none of this history in mind as they defied the evacuation order and headed back into Monte Lake, intent on extinguishing the spot fires still burning. One gusty day was all it would take to whip up the fire again, and yet more homes would be lost. With virtually no professional resources in sight, Cawkwell and his neighbours tackled the remaining fires alone. Canada’s National Observer went with them to observe their efforts directly.
Though they had no official government support, the group was organized. They pulled together radios and organized a de facto command centre staffed by wives and friends in nearby Salmon Arm. They had water tanks, pumps, shovels and hoses.
“If a (B.C. Wildfire) crew showed up here right now and said, ‘We got this,’ I’d leave immediately,” Cawkwell said at the time, while loading hoses and a water pump onto an ATV. He urged the ATV forward and into a smouldering ravine behind his home “But they’re not. If it was your home, what would you do?”
Only a couple of years ago, Cawkwell said he would never have expected to be staring down a wildfire. He grew up in the Fraser Valley and moved from Abbotsford to the Interior less than two years ago, shortly after the birth of his son.
“We always wanted to move upcountry and get out of the city. When he was born it was kind of like, it's time to go and give him a better life,” Cawkwell said.
While no one in his family had ever experienced living through a wildfire, generations of farming and a self-reliant lifestyle prepared him, he added.
“We weren’t rich by any means,” he said. “My dad drove a truck, and my mom raised me and my sister ... We didn’t have a bunch of money. Anything we had, we had to fix it ourselves.”
For many of the area’s residents, the skills of their professional lives as farmers, ranchers or forestry workers make them uniquely prepared to handle emergencies.
While his home, sandwiched in a narrow valley between two creeks, was relatively safe for the moment, Cawkwell’s concern was for his neighbours. “If the wind picks up, these spot fires will get into those trees and other houses could go,” he said.
As Cawkwell and Kruesel worked in the ravine, a steady flow of pickup trucks arrived in the yard. A water pump rattled in the background, keeping a giant tanker truck topped up with water from a creek. Workers, some in T-shirts, others in fire-resistant Nomex gear, piled out of trucks to fill their own water tanks from the tanker Cawkwell said belonged to his father.
“Thank God we have this,” one of the other workers said.
Topped up with water, the trucks fanned out in different directions, responding wherever there were reports of spot fires lighting up or smouldering remains that needed to be doused. The whump-whump-whump of a helicopter’s heavy blades echoed in the distance, as B.C. Wildfire crews continued the battle on the fire’s front line.
Climate change is not the only culprit
While climate change is undoubtedly making wildfires worse, it is not the only culprit driving today’s giant burns.
Western forest ecosystems traditionally relied on low-intensity ground fires for revitalization and growth, while allowing mature trees to survive.
However, our more recent history of fire suppression has upset that balance. Scar patterns left behind by fires in the growth rings of trees illustrate the shift, according to a recent study by forestry professor Lori Daniels’ research group at the University of British Columbia’s Tree Ring Lab.
Graduate student Wes Brookes examined fire scars in centuries-old trees from the Alex Fraser Research Forest near 100 Mile House in central B.C. His work showed that up until the mid-1900s, the average length of time between fires was about 15 years.
The fires burned at low enough intensities that mature trees were able to survive multiple fires over their lifetime, Daniels said of Brookes’ data.
Alongside naturally occurring wildfires, Indigenous communities traditionally used controlled burns to decrease the threat of catastrophic fires and improve the landscape for hunting. But for over a century, the prevailing colonial approach to wildfires banned cultural burning and focused on detecting and extinguishing all fires as early as possible.
This means that since the 1940s, survivable surface fires like this have been virtually eliminated altogether, Daniels said, allowing forests to become much denser, overgrown and loaded with fuel.
Compounding the problem is a modern forest management regime that is often at odds with expert advice for building wildfire resilience.
In British Columbia, for example, there is a statutory obligation to replant harvested blocks with species and at densities that maximize standing timber values instead of focusing on building fire resilience, said Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a PhD candidate at UBC’s School of Forestry.
All of this is what Daniels describes as a “fire suppression paradox” — what was meant to protect the landscape from fire has instead created tinderbox conditions.
A community ready for the worst
Cawkwell and his neighbours had become attuned to fire danger in their area earlier in the summer when a small blaze sparked by lightning caught them off guard. The community sat down to plan out its response for future fires.
They took notes on everyone’s homes and plans: who would leave, who would stay, who had pets that might need rescuing. They inventoried all their available equipment, from pumps and hoses to trucks, water tanks and hand tools.
“We knew our exits,” Cawkwell said. “We had decided if the fire comes slow, we’re all staying and we’re going to hold it.”
Those plans paid off when it came time to flee.
The process was stressful, but not chaotic, Cawkwell said. “Everybody was calm, everybody knew what was happening. No one was running around wild,” he said.
The advance watering efforts paid off in some cases, too. Photos of a property belonging to Michelle Maisonneuve and her partner Rob Hugh collected after the fire show a clear line between what burned and what didn’t. Hugh said the area he’d been able to soak ahead of time was saved, including a mobile home trailer and his motorcycle. The rest of the property turned to ash.
Government officials shamed those who stayed
Watching the fires and accompanying evacuation orders spread across the central Interior this summer, Public Safety Minister Farnworth said he was shocked.
“It’s very concerning. You’re hoping that nobody gets hurt … that’s the most important thing at the end of the day,” he said. “And you’re going, God, are we going to get some rain soon?”
In Canada and the U.S., official government policy typically requires everyone in the area to leave when an evacuation order is issued, though police often have few powers to physically remove those who refuse. In 2017, the RCMP threatened to apprehend children when members of the Tl’etinqox First Nation near Williams Lake refused to evacuate. The nation instead set to work building firebreaks and mounted a successful defence of its community.
This past summer, Farnworth and other officials spent much of the summer pleading with locals not to stay and defend their homes, saying to do so put firefighters’ lives at risk. Larry Watkinson, who works with B.C. Wildfire’s structural protection branch, told Canada’s National Observer: “Sadly, we had to commit many resources to residents who chose not to leave the (evacuation) order area.
“In some cases, we had to stop operations completely and instead focus efforts on removing residents, as well as request RCMP to enforce the evacuation order.”
Farnworth reiterated claims that residents who stayed put firefighters' lives at risk. In one situation the minister described, the smoke was so thick that B.C. Wildfire was forced to send a military helicopter equipped with night vision to rescue a family that became trapped. But after the helicopter arrived, the wind shifted and the family changed their minds and refused to leave, he said.
A similar situation required a B.C. Wildfire helicopter to rescue residents near Monte Lake who had refused to evacuate until it was too late, Farnworth said.
“And it almost ended very badly,” he said. “That's why the (evacuation) orders are there. It's about protecting people's lives.”
Farnworth said in terms of the worst years on record, 2021 wasn’t as bad as 2017, either in area burned or in the total number of people displaced. Nonetheless, it was particularly challenging because the fires were almost all concentrated in the central Interior, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic also complicated matters, making it harder than usual to call in support from other jurisdictions, the minister added.
Residents were given tacit approval to return to the fire zone
Despite the public line insisting locals stay out of the fire zone, once the White Rock Lake fire made its initial pass through Monte Lake, officers at some police roadblocks waved through locals who planned to fight the fires or do mop-up work. Other officers refused but acknowledged with a wink and a nod that other routes into the evacuation zone were unguarded.
“We can’t block every road, if you know what I mean,” an officer told Cawkwell and Kruesel’s group, mentioning one logging road he knew to be unguarded.
It was a tacit acknowledgment that the work locals were doing, especially after the head of the fire had moved on, was crucial to preventing further damage as spot fires continued to burn.
In the end, Cawkwell said, official sanction for their work came retroactively in the form of payment. Though they were forced to dodge roadblocks and defy the evacuation in order to do much of their work, he said the provincial government eventually paid him and his neighbours $20 per hour for the work they did and helped ink a deal that gets him onto a list for quick hiring for similar work in the future.
In a statement, B.C. Wildfire said some Monte Lake residents were hired on as “Type 3” firefighters to do mop-up and other support functions, but the service did not answer specific questions about when those contracts were put in place or why some of those locals were forced to dodge police roadblocks in order to do the work they were later paid for.
As Canadian communities grapple with these challenges, an increasing number are looking to Australia for an example of how to better integrate local resources into the larger wildfire response system.
As Australian forestry and bushfire expert Tony Bartlett told a panel at the Commonwealth Forestry Conference at the University of British Columbia this August, many rural communities in that country have organized local volunteer bushfire units that are trained and equipped under the auspices of the broader wildfire management services.
“What the fire agencies recognized is that under the worst fire scenarios, where you’ve got major towns and cities being threatened, the number of fire trucks and equipment that they have gets overwhelmed,” Bartlett said.
“If you equip (locals) and train them, and put them under the umbrella of the broader firefighting crews, they can do some very good work,” he said.
The key elements here are training, equipment and preparation. The destruction of 2009’s Black Saturday tragedy taught Australia what can happen when people are not prepared to face the wrath of an oncoming firefront.
After that disaster, a subsequent inquiry criticized parts of Australia’s existing stay-or-go bushfire policy, which gives homeowners essentially two options: either leave the area well before a fire arrives while evacuation routes are still clear or stay and prepare to defend your property to the end, an arduous task only suited for the most experienced and prepared homeowners.
In fact, some research suggests the most dangerous thing to do is leave at the last minute: Pell-mell attempts to outrun a raging fire can create chaos, jam roadways and leave people trapped in their cars, as happened to many people fleeing the Camp Fire in California in 2018, or the Tubbs and Cedar fires before it. In some instances in Australia, as a fire approaches, official orders to evacuate shift to warnings that it’s now too late to leave and residents should prepare to shelter in place.
The Black Saturday inquiry did not do away with stay-or-go altogether. Instead, it offered an update, including better education, training, support and integration for locals who do stay. Another key recommendation was to create well-identified official shelter locations, like soccer fields, community centres or even beaches, where people who cannot evacuate or properly defend their homes can go.
The tragedies occur when people aren’t properly trained and organized, Bartlett said.
Minister Farnworth said he’d be willing to explore how those strategies might work in a B.C. context, but only if the priority remained protecting people’s lives.
“I mean, we certainly can take a look,” Farnworth said. “But I also know that if you look at the fire death rate in Australia and in the United States, and then compare it to British Columbia … We have a very low fatality rate in this province.
“You know we can look at all kinds of things, but the bottom line is public safety has always got to come first,” Farnworth said.