Angie Thorne heard about what would come to be known as the Elephant Hill wildfire long before most people did, on the evening of Thursday, July 6.
“I got a notification about the fire,” says Angie, who went out on the front porch of her home on the Ashcroft Reserve. She could see nothing from there, and went out on her back deck, where she could see a glow to the south.
“I watched it for a bit, and got a text from [a member of the Ashcroft Volunteer Fire Department], asking what it looked like.” She sent him a picture via messenger and asked what was happening. “He told me they were waiting for the Forestry and they should be here soon. BC Wildfire Service got there around midnight, and went in with three small vehicles, left, and returned with two larger ones.
“Around 1:15 a.m. I said to my brother Mark ‘I don’t see the glow anymore,’” says Angie. She continued to watch until about 2 a.m., then said to Mark, “Let’s go for a drive up by the sandpit across from my house and see. We didn’t see any indication that the fire was still moving, and I said to Mark ‘I guess it’s safe to go to bed.’”
On the morning of July 7 Angie and her brother Dempsey had plans to drive to Kamloops, but stopped at the Band Office on the way. “We didn’t see anything at first; then there was thick black smoke. I said ‘We’d better get our butts home; this doesn’t look good.’ It was moving fast, with lots of black smoke and flames.”
Angie called her husband Randy, who was at work at the Basque Ranch, and rushed back to the house, where Angie lived with Randy, Dempsey, her daughter Kelsey, her granddaughter Nevaeh, and her son Andrew. “We stopped on the way to the house and saw Mark, and I asked if he got his family out. Everyone was in a panic.”
When Angie arrived at her house, family and friends were there to help. Angie threw some clothes into her fifth-wheel vehicle with their help, then saw smoke on the other side of the knoll across the road from her house, and told everyone they had to get out.She drove to her father’s house on the reserve and found him trying to get up on the roof to water down the house. “I told him to get down. I’ll never forget the look my dad had on his face. It was one of fear, and seeing me in fear he got down and proceeded into the house to gather up Ruth and Shawn.”
Despite the smoke being so thick she didn’t think she’d make it round the corner, Angie says there were already looky-loos driving through the reserve, taking pictures. She made it to the bridge in Ashcroft, where she and Crystal Daniels, one of the helpers, started to stop vehicles from going up towards the reserve. “Some people were like ‘We just want to take pictures.’ We were telling them it’s dangerous, and advised against it. But some didn’t listen, and still proceeded. The RCMP arrived and took over the task, and weren’t allowing anyone up that way.
“One policeman asked if [the fire] could have been from asparagus burning. He obviously hadn’t been here long, because anyone that has been here for a long time knows that’s done in April/May.”
Randy called, to say he was at the house, and Angie told police she had to go see if her husband was okay. Randy, like her father before him, was up on the roof, and Angie told him to get down. She headed back to Ashcroft, thinking that Randy was following with their truck and trailer. She waited 10 minutes, but there was no sign of Randy.
“I was going to go back up, even though the police said it was dangerous,” says Angie. “Then I saw him come around the corner.” She found out later that Randy had taken the truck and trailer through the sand, where he briefly got stuck.
“Randy thought he had time, but he didn’t. Thank God Nevaeh went with friends. She would have been traumatized.”
Angie says that 27 people lost their homes on the reserve that day: three children under the age of nine; 13 males; and 11 females. Eight of the adults were elders. Eleven members of Angie’s family were directly affected.
Angie says she had an emotional breakdown when they returned to Ashcroft. They decided to drive to the Legacy Park, where they set up their trailer, and soon many community members had come to the park.
“Everyone started congregating at our camp. People had no place to go.”
Community members brought a spaghetti dinner for everyone, but Angie says that most of the plates and cutlery from the trailer were up at the house, as they needed cleaning after a recent trip. “There was no power, and cell service wasn’t good. People in the family were freaking out, because they didn’t know if everyone was okay.
“It was pretty scary: people didn’t know where other community members were.”
Volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse went with Angie to the site of her house, to see if they could recover any items. “I didn’t think they’d find much, but we found a few items. There was a rock with my granddaughter’s footprint painted on it. I don’t know how it survived. She made it when she was two, and she’s nine now.”
Angie, Randy, Kelsey, and Nevaeh are currently being billeted in a house on the Mesa in Ashcroft. The billeting came via Emergency Social Services (ESS) until January 31, 2018, at which time Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada took over. Angie says there has been little communication from the band about what is happening regarding replacement houses for those who lost their homes.
“We were told in October that the band wasn’t ready for a housing meeting yet, and there’s been nothing since. There’s a lot of frustration. The ESS and Emergency Operation Centre were very helpful, and we were having meetings every two weeks.
“We thought things were going well. But when people got back into the band office, no one paid attention to us, and there’s no support of any kind.
“We’re looking for a concrete statement about housing. We want to be involved in the process. We shouldn’t have to be running around looking for information; it should flow to us, and be respectful. And a lot of elders don’t have Facebook or email, so they’re relying on me to be their eyes and ears.”
She says she has heard that the triplex on the reserve — the newest building on the site, and which was destroyed in the fire — will not be replaced, and wonders what will happen to the three people who were living there.
“All the community members are affected, and it’s very stressful to try to answer questions we don’t know the answers to. It’s also very frustrating for our members to try to move forward without a big part of the plan. What does forward look like?”
Angie says the children have really been impacted by the fire, and that she is setting up some extra support for Nevaeh at school. “She has good days and bad days. She lost her dog, and sometimes she gets triggered and breaks down. We’re arranging some emotional and mental support for her.”
In the meantime, Angie says that she and her family and the other community members are just trying to live day to day and deal with their emotions.
“It’s frustrating to sit with elders, who are crying. There are 13 males, all single, all living in hotels. My dad is in a kitchenette. It’s tough on them.
“Some are in rooms at the River Inn, and they say ‘No one cares, I have no home to go to.’ When you hear these stories it’s very frustrating.
“It’s starting to get personal, with all the family members involved. The mental, emotional strain; it’s almost unbearable.”
Angie pauses for a few moments. “I’m sorry to cry,” she says at last. “But 11 of the 27 people affected are my immediate family. We live it every day.
“We just want to be a part of the communication piece to help ease our minds and emotions about the situation we are all still living.”