Marion Zielke with her sister Audrey Brown and husband Ralph Nicol from 108. Photo Fiona Maureen

108 Mile evacuees find safety in Vanderhoof

The smoke drove them from their first escape in Williams Lake

Audrey Brown and Ralph Nicol from 108 Mile are two of the several and growing numbers of evacuees making their way to Vanderhoof to stay with relatives, rather than reception centres in Prince George and new ones springing up elsewhere in the province including the lower mainland.

Audrey and Ralph are staying with Audrey’s sister Marion Zielke here in Vanderhoof. They arrived on Sunday July 9, after leaving 108 on Saturday and staying a night in Williams Lake with Ralph’s sister. William’s Lake is where they headed first, as 100 Mile residents were initially directed.

Smoke drove us out

“We were told at first to go to Williams Lake so we went to his sister by Horse Lake. We stayed there for one night but it got far too smokey,” said Audrey.

Audrey and Ralph arrived in Williams Lake on Saturday afternoon but by the next morning the smoke was too thick and they had to turn back and over to Alberta passing through Jasper and then back into BC via McBride to get here. Ralph can’t handle poor air quality as he is full time dependent on oxygen supply via breathing aparatus.

108 first to evacuate

The two of them shared with Omineca Express how things unfolded when the fire close to them started. 108 mile was one of the first communities to be evacuated. “It was good that we left when we did,” said Ralph, “Because the fire was quite a ways away and we left around noon and the next morning the fire was right in the 108.”

Houses lost

There are about 1,100 houses in 108 Mile, “there’s a green belt so you only see four or five homes from the highway.” They had heard at least two or three houses had been destroyed by the wildfire. According to John Rustad that number is at least five, quite possibly more by now with the changing winds.

Marian recalls how she called her sister in 108 mile on Friday July 7 already after she saw the fires on the news. “The fire started on Thursday July 6. I heard it on TV and I phoned her and told her “You better get here Audrey, you and Ralph better pack your bags and come stay here” said Marian.

Ralph says, “If we’d listened to you right away we would’ve been in big trouble because we would’ve been in limbo [and surounded by smoke]. If we headed up towards Vanderhoof right away we would’ve been on highway 97 on Saturday and they would’ve closed it before we got to Quesnel. Only highway 24 is open”

No notice to get out

Audrey and Ralph said they had no notice. “A neighbour came and told us to get out. We didnt get an alert first or anything,” continues Audrey, “We had to go into town to get his medicine and fill up with gas. Only one station had gas and only two pumps were running on Saturday morning in 100 mile. We left in such a rush our Jeep is packed full, and half the stuff I don’t even know why I took” she says.

“We were thinking of going to Salmon Arm, but we decided to come here,” says Audrey. “It was a long day 720 km to get here.”

“He forgot one of his hearing aids because he had answered the phone just before he left. He had put his hearing aid down to answer.”

“We tried to go back home to get it on our way out of Williams Lake around to Vanderhoof. But they stopped us before 103 at the light there and they wouldn’t let us through.”

Safe in Vanderhoof

Since arriving in Vanderhoof he hasn’t had any problem with the air quality at all. But they’re still staying mostly indoors.

“It’s such a hassle I forgot the batteries for my hearing aids. I forgot some of my vitalaire stuff too,” says Ralph. “The Vanderhoof hospital provided me some hoses and the washers for the regulator we had to get in Prince George.” His neice Vicky took the time to go to Vitalaire in PG and got it for him. He brought his oxygen tank.

“We didn’t have pets, thank goodness,” says Audrey.

“We’ve been very comfortable in our hotel here,” she says smiling.

Marion laughs and says she’ll send them the hospitality bill at the end of the month! But then quickly adds in all seriousness; “I’m very concerned for not just these two but everybody,” said Marion, only too happy to have her younger sister and her husband able to find refuge at her house.

“I’ve got to be careful because I’m on a machine and I need power,” says Ralph.

“People are pretty compasionate here,” he says, “You go downtown and people ask how you’re doing.”

108 power outages

“We heard from ringing the call centre they shut the power off in 108 last Friday. Then I heard they turned it on the Wednesday after, but we don’t know for how long it’ll stay on or if our food is spoiled in our freezer. We only hope that our house hasn’t burned down.. we don’t believe it has, …not yet.” They’ve got to accept, like so many residents in affected areas, that if the wind changes, their homes are still not out of danger.

Neighbours scattered

“This is another problem when you’re in a group like that,” she says; “We’re out of touch with everyone down there because everyone went in different directions. Not everybody has cell phones. We phone them on land phones we don’t use cell phones like these folks up here do. We didn’t even think of cell phones. Eventhough Williams Lake is the way we were supposed to go, people went where they had relatives. Who knows where 100 mile people are, we’re scattered all over.”

They’ve registered in 100 mile. Ralph’s sister from William’s Lake is in Coquitlam, she left voluntarily during the Evacuation Alert. Good thing because Williams Lake was issued an Evacuation Order just a few days later.

Very little information

“I can’t even get information on what’s been happening,” said Audrey. “On the TV they keep showing the same thing over and over again, and it’s always Ashcroft. 103, 105, 108 is not mentioned. There’s very poor reporting on these other areas. We’d really like to see pictures. What about the rest of us?”

“There’s no coverage so they must not be letting the news media in there. There’s no picture coverage. 100 mile is as far as they’re letting them go. Maybe it’s still too hot or smokey. There’s a lot of smoke,” says Ralph. “The only thing we found out is there’s looting down there.”

“It’s one week at least before we can go back at least, minimum.”

“In Quesnel we heard people were posing as fire marshalls, telling people to evacuate. Must’ve been going back to steal. But they’re the small few. Most people are honest and really helpful.”

Experience wildfire fighting

They came face to face with the Chase fire in 1997, “He ran a skidder and I was running a water hose.”

We got caught twice, one I really didn’t know and had I not taken the S100. When a fire burns and you lose control and your escape route is blocked. Well I don’t want to get burned so I’m going to outrun this thing. I honestly wouldn’t have known not to out run the fire, but you’re supposed to run back into the fire, you’ll get your feet burnt but you won’t lose your life. You try to outrun a fire and you’re gone.”

Saskatchewan girls and BC boys

Ralph was born in Williams Lake and raised in Horsefly, he worked in the bush. Ralph was a faller for close to 30 years.

Audrey, Marian and their two other sisters grew up in Saskatchewan, “That’s what they say; all the Saskatchewan girls come out to B.C. to get their husbands, because the men out here are so much better. But they way I look at it is the men out here are pretty damn lucky to get hard working Sasckatchewan girls.”