Diary of a Wildfire Summer

A view of the smoke and fires near Easygo Ranch. Credit: Elli Meinert

Summer is generally a season to which most Canadians look forward. But for Lac La Hache, BC, resident Elli Meinert, 2017 was a summer she was glad to bid goodbye. Little did she know that when the province of British Columbia was about to experience one of its worst wildfire seasons in history, Meinert’s home was about to become a highly sought after evacuation zone.

“I remember that on July 6, I got my first Facebook message,” said Meinert. “It read, ‘Can I bring my herd over?’” she relayed. In addition to her own animals, Meinert ended up with 8 extra horses in her care that afternoon. Meinert owns and operates Easygo Ranch, an equine facility bordering a lake, in northern BC. As the events of the summer unfolded, the raging wildfires quickly sparked in several locations in close proximity to the ranch.

“During those early days in July we were watching the fire and there was smoke on the other side of the barn. We had had a fire in that direction 3-4 weeks before. We watched them hit it with retardant and it was gone. But this time, it was different,” she said.

“On July 7, I was by myself and all of a sudden there were water bombers flying right over the house. I phoned my hubby and asked him to come home. On Friday, I hauled horses for someone who was put on Order. And then while I was trying to load horses for someone else – we were put on Alert. I shoved the last horse I could fit in the trailer and went back home. Then the news started coming in. The 108 (a big settlement of houses nearby) were also put on Order.”

To be on “Alert” means officials in the province have advised residents to be ready, in case they must leave. You can leave but you can’t come back. Highways were only open to whatever evacuation route officials deemed safe to travel at the time.

To be on “Evacuation Order” means you have to leave.

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

“At that point, we weren’t just trying to look after our horses or other peoples’ horses – we were making beds for people. My Step-Dad, my neighbours – where else did they have to go? You can’t go to a hotel with two Jack Russells and cats and stuff,” Meinert stated. “So we got really efficient with the dog shuffle (because not all the animals got along). We took in a few extra people and more animals.”

On July 7, Meinert admits they all thought about leaving because the closest fire was too close for comfort. “I had trailers lined up, but soon we realized we couldn’t leave because they closed the highway.”

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

After that, another 15 horses arrived so Easygo’s tally came in at 35. “Some of the owners were stuck on the other side of road blocks. There was an orphan from the SPCA that came. We were looking after them all, full time,” she said.

The human residents of Easygo Ranch were also stuck on a 6-kms travel radius during those days. They were permitted to move around in the radius, but no farther.

“We could go to our gas station corner store, which was good but they quickly ran out of supplies. We were all put on rations: one loaf of bread and one jug of milk per household. It was stupid.

“After chores each day we would all meet up in front of the barn to decide who was cooking dinner that night. One night we had just finished and the power went out. I just wanted a shower… We spent this whole time prepping in case the fire did come to the ranch. We tried to make the place as fireproof as we could. But that night it was distressing. We’d look to the south west and you could see a plume of smoke from the 100 Mile fire. To the north west there was another huge fire from the Chilcotin. And in the north east there was the fire from Williams Lake. We were all just standing there and discussing what we were going to do and then all this smoke started drifting in from across the lake.”

Credit: Elli Meinert

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“I really wasn’t going to leave unless we could take all the horses,” she explained. “We could only take 12 horses and there were clearly more than that.”

Thankfully Easygo Ranch already had great fire suppression systems in place before summer started. These included a dry well located close tot the barn, the lake that could be pumped out of, and an indoor arena with amazing water hoses and generators for power.

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

 

 

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

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However there were other things Meinert learned about in the face of a crisis that also helped ride out the storm.

“Val Detweiller used to work in forestry and she contacted me. She was a huge help with her information. She gave me ideas like placing a tarp over the manure pile, to prevent it from catching a spark. We also set up panels in the outdoor arena in case something happened to the barn and I would have to get all the horses outside. The good thing was, Easygo has lots of grass and open areas with sand breaks and driveways in between things. In the worst case scenario, we may have had a massive grass fire but I still think we could have saved our animals. That was my number one priority. Of course, I was also concerned for our own safety – but let the buildings burn if they must.”

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

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The group at Easygo Ranch knew that if a fire did come to their doorstep, they would not be able to force it back. Luckily, during those days in July, the fires gave them quite a scare but didn’t progress to the point of destruction for the ranch.

Yet, little did the group at Easygo realize – this would only be the first wave of fires to threaten the area that summer.

“After the first scare, many horses did go home. We only had one group of horses who were owned by people who had all their fences burned down, etc. So they couldn’t return as quickly as the rest.

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

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“But then, the second wave of fire evacuations began. We went down to nine horses and then I personally helped evacuate another boarding facility – again. All of a sudden we were back up to 22 horses…”

In the second round, Meinert was able to plan far enough ahead so the second round of horses came in with their own feed. This was a lifesaver for Easygo Ranch, because in the first bout of fires – feed went fast and there was no time, nor opportunity to replenish supplies.

“I fed everyone in the first round but in the second wave, we knew we were going to run out of feed. This time it was like, ‘If you can, please bring your own feed!’”

As July turned to August and finally September, a bit of relief was sighed when officials finally announced the fire situation was under control. Everyone who was housed at Easygo Ranch during the summer fared well.

 

CREDIT: Elli Meinert

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Still, it’s not a situation Meinert ever wants to endure again. “Honestly, I hope to never see something like that in my lifetime again. It never needs to happen again,” she states.

A nighttime view of one of the fires that threatened Easygo Ranch during the summer of 2017. CREDIT: Elli Meinert