McBride Main Street had a front row seat as the fire blazed across the mountainside. Sandra James provided the photo on the left. The resulting scar has become a part of the community’s landscape and history. Residents await to see what, if any, greenery blossoms in it’s wake. /ANDREA ARNOLD

By Andrea Arnold

On May 4, 2023, the McBride District Fire Department responded to a slash fire that had grown out of control approximately five kilometres outside of town. 

With the aid of BC Wildfire personale, the fire was thought to be contained. However, on the afternoon of Friday May 5, 2023,  the fire had accelerated into an uncontrolled wildfire due to the wind, pushing it towards the community. 

Some 61 properties that lay in the fire’s path were quickly evacuated, and hundreds more put on evacuation alert, including the entire Village of McBride. Homeowners and crews rushed to set up fire protection systems to dampen rooftops, trees or brush within close proximity. 

Between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening, the fire had grown from 11 hectares to a massive 1,100 hectares.

By Sunday afternoon, thanks to the hard work of four initial attack crews, seven officers, a water bomber, a helicopter and volunteer fire departments from McBride, Valemount and Beaverly, along with a substantial downpour, the fire was declared under control and evacuation notices were rescinded.

During the course of the fire, the community of McBride came together to help each other. Be it through evacuation aid, property protection, food for crews, accommodation, animal care, or countless other ways.

The scar of scorched trees that can be seen from almost everywhere in the Valley serves as a reminder of what the word community means.

A few residents who were evacuated shared with the Goat some of their experiences and how ” or if ” they have made changes to their environment, or preparation plans. 

Reflections & rebuilding one year after the Teare Creek fire: Barrie & Joanne Bedell

Barrie and Joanne Bedell were driving home from holiday when the evacuation order was given on May 5, 2023. Friends and family rushed to their home to remove items and set up sprinklers in hopes of saving their mountainside home. 

The couple saw the massive billowing smoke cloud above their property from several kilometres away as they approached town.

In an interview with the Goat last year, Joanne said at first they didn’t have much hope.

“When we rounded the corner and saw all that smoke in the air and the clouds were billowing up, it was like ‘I don’t have a house anymore.”

Barrie said when they pulled into the yard, they were surprised to see the buildings still standing and the crew of people working to save as much as possible.

Joanne provided the photo on the left, taken on their property just a few days after the evacuation notice was lifted. The photo on the right was taken almost exactly 51 weeks later. Still a little early to see how the charred trees produce leaves this year. /ANDREA ARNOLD

When the smoke cleared, they were able to assess their losses: 90 per cent of their 80 acres was burned. They lost two small sheds full of items, a number of old vehicles, and a pole shed containing several recreational vehicles. Despite the physical losses, the couple was thankful everyone was safe.

Since the fire, the Bedells have built a new pole shed in a different location. Barrie said the old one had trees growing close to either end of the building. This time, he has made sure this is not the case. 

Also, previously, he had stored stacks of old tires along the outside walls. 

“That will not happen again,” he said. “They are now stored inside, away from possible flying embers. Also, the new shed has about 12 feet of gravel surfaced ground all the way around it. No grass.”

He also says that other combustibles like geri cans are all stored in one area. This has not changed from before the fire. 

“I was able to tell the fire department, ‘that shed has flammable contents’ when they were on site,” he said.

He has also split up the recreational vehicles. They are now stored in a few different locations. When asked if that was intentional, he laughed and said no. But he agreed that maybe that was a subconscious decision following the losses last year.

Although they didn’t expect that their property or the community would be at risk from a fire due to the rainforest and damp qualities the valley is known for, they did have their important documents in a specific location, and that has not changed.

“Bobbi-Jo (their daughter) knows where they are, and she was able to grab them quickly,” said Barrie. 

The fire came within 100 feet from the house, burning only a small group of trees containing a tree fort that is visible from the house. The group of people who had responded to the property had set up a system that was dampening much of the hillside above the home. The fire department also installed a sprinkler system on the roof of their house.

“My brother served as a forest fire service worker for many years,” said Barrie. “I have always had a pretty healthy respect for what a fire can do. But we were surprised to have one so close to home.”

The Bedells are in the process of upgrading their water storage and distribution to include locations closer to some of the other structures that are around their property. 

Preparation paid off: Gary & Ann Schwartz

Ann and Gary Schwartz say they feel like last year they were as prepared as one can be for a situation such as an out of control wildfire sweeping towards one’s home.

The Schwartz home is located not far from the bottom of the smoke cloud seen in the photo on the left, provided by Eric Depenau. Now, as spring is turning the valley floor green, the stark black trees left standing on the mountain side are a constant reminder of the fire. /ANDREA ARNOLD

At the time, the Robson Valley Pet Hostel was still boarding animals so the couple had an added element of urgency to make sure not only their own animals and items were safe, but the boarding animals as well.

“In general, I think I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Ann. She was referring to the order in which the events unfolded on May 5th, 2024. “We got the boarded dogs and cats out, then our own pets, our ‘evacuation box’ (water, chargers) and doomsday box (important documents).”

The couple did not do it alone. They had many offers of help. In total 16 dogs, six cats and seven chickens were relocated. Some of the boarded dogs were picked up by owners’ friends or family. The two biggest dogs were taken by friends out to their own farms and Ann took the remaining six dogs and six cats to their vacation home in town.

“The chickens were taken to a friend’s garage in town, where they were content enough to lay eggs right away,” she said.

While Ann was overseeing the animals, others were busy at the house clearing it of paintings, and some silverware.

“If the fire had come, it would have been Gary, Adrien and friends who saved those treasures,” she said.

They are grateful to all who helped during the evacuation.

“Short of having a fire suppression system, we did as well as possible,” said Gary. “The fire departments who attended set up sprinklers on the rooftops of two shops and the house, and later Forestry set up the ‘tub of doom’ “¦ the big yellow swimming pool.”

Although the couple’s home is located on the side of the mountain, they are diligent at keeping the yard free of fallen combustibles like dead leaves and branches.

“We have a pretty safe site anyway, with little brush near the house,” said Gary.

This year, without the extra animals to account for, they feel as though they would be ready in the event of a repeat situation. Their evacuation and doomsday boxes have remained packed, and Ann says that they are checked regularly throughout the year in case something needs to be replaced.

Lasting effects: Jan Bratton

Last May, Jan Bratton celebrated her 50th birthday in an RV driving towards Prince George with the future of her childhood home unknown as the Teare Creek fire raged closer.

This year, on the first anniversary of the fire, Bratton has some family staying with her and plans to spend the weekend doing things around the house and keeping busy entertaining her small nephew. She says she would be completely content if it poured rain all weekend.

“I just need to get through this first anniversary,” she said. “Having them here will help.

On May 5th, as she headed to work, she saw a pillar of smoke on the mountain. By the time she had reached work, the smoke cloud had grown significantly so she headed home to pack up and evacuate.” 

In the 45 minutes it took her to pack up her belongings and four pets into her motorhome and head out, the fire had made significant headway towards her home.

Bratton supplied these two photos. The first, on the left, was taken as she arrived home to gather her things. The second, on the right, was taken about 45 minutes later. The power pole on the right of the rightmost photo is the same pole as the one seen on the left on the earlier photo. Bratton was sure she’d seen the last of the neighbourhood as she knew it. /SUBMITTED

Once the fire was under control and she’d returned home, things for Bratton were far from normal.

Bratton says that since the fire she has experienced several PTSD-like symptoms.

“For the rest of the season I was constantly on the BC Wildfire app, checking it every time I thought I smelled a hint of smoke in the air.”

As the summer progressed, each time the smoke from other fires moved into the valley and the mountains were obscured, she felt the need to be outside doing things.

“Being inside was claustrophobic,” she said. “I needed to be where I could see if something changed and I needed to react.”

Later in the year as the weather cooled and the threat of fire eased, she was still on edge when a neighbour above her along the mountain had a slash pile burning, without having given notice to nearby recently fire-affected neighbours.

“Once the temperature really dropped, I had to remind myself every time I went outside and smelled smoke that it was just my neighbours wood stoves,” she said. “Even when I lit my own I would react to the smell with an extra level of worry and caution.”

This year, Bratton has already stockpiled a large amount of firewood, as she expects that if the wildfire season gets bad enough, access to backroads may be limited in the later summer and fall due to dry conditions, resulting in a shortage of attainable firewood.

As she gets it, she has been diligent in splitting and stacking it in a metal shed away from the house, not leaving it out in the yard for very long. She has also worked to clear dead leaves away from her home. 

She has a soaker hose that she plans to use on the roof of one of the structures in the yard if needed, and will be applying for one of the sprinkler kits that the McBride District Fire Department has for distribution.

Her RV is stocked with all the necessities, and her important documents are quickly accessible.

“All I need to do is grab clothes and the heartbeats (pets), and I’m ready to go,” she said.

Last year before she left her home, she put a sign on the front door stating that the home had been evacuated, and that she was safe. She also included her phone number.

“When I talked to the RCMP later, they said that my sign was the only one with those details that they saw. I have that sign laminated now and ready to be posted if needed.”

Several years ago, Bratton was a member of the McBride District Fire Department. She was a little surprised to see that under pressure, some of the things she did before leaving the house came without a lot of thought. Things like closing all of the windows and leaving the sign on the front door. 

“I have always been very fire conscious,” said Bratton. “Serving on the fire department years ago taught me that as long as the heartbeats are safe, it is only a house, and it is only stuff.”