While ranchers have been in the fight of their lives to save their properties and livelihoods from wildfires in the Cariboo Chilcotin, they have been doing so in many cases while being hampered, not helped, by government.
But now, after almost two weeks of fighting, BC Cattlemen’s Association (BCCA) president Kevin Boon said things are about to change.
“We’ve had a major breakthrough,” Boon said Friday morning. “We finally got through to them. It has been a bureaucratic nightmare.
“The Cariboo Regional District is recognizing that they have to work with the ranchers not against them. Now let’s bring the resources into place and treat the ranchers like the asset they really are.”
Boon said every rancher from Ashcroft to Quesnel and beyond will be affected by the 2017 wildfires, “whether the fire is in your backyard or it’s 10 kilometres away.”
“This is an unprecedented event. For the amount of work the ranchers have done to not only protect their own homes and properties but also their neighbours and communities, it is disheartening what has happened. It’s making a bad situation worse.”
Boon said in some areas ranchers have been cut off from access after going out to look after their cattle, and also have been prevented from getting supplies in.
“It’s actually increased the risk and danger for ranchers (by not working with them.) You know these people understand the risks. They know the land. They are out there doing extremely valuable work. To see what these ranchers are doing to ensure their cattle are safe is absolutely heroic. They are a valuable resource and they are not being used or respected for their knowledge.”
Boon said the BCCA is assisting in every way they can to support ranchers. They have helped coordinate haulers with livestock needing to be evacuated and are starting with working with government in the days ahead to get workers set up with long-term permits to allow them into evacuated areas.
Many fences were either burnt or cut to allow the cattle to run from the fires. In the Chilcotin, for example, cattle from different ranches located between Riske Creek to Hanceville and south are all mixed up together. Last week cowboys were gathering cattle from Highway 20 that survived the fires.
Those cattle were eventually trucked to safer locations. But just days before that, at least two cows were hit by a motorist fleeing the fires on Highway 20.
“We need to get livestock off highways and roadways. It puts the public at risk. We’re going to lose cattle, we understand that, but we don’t need to lose human life. This is an essential service to get these cattle in [before the evacuation order is lifted].”
Boon said the BCCA is also working with all levels of government to secure emergency funding as soon as possible to assist ranchers, many of whom have lost their grasslands for grazing, millions of dollars in timber values on their lands and even buildings and homes in some cases.
“The losses we are seeing are going to be unprecedented in so many ways,” Boon said, noting emergency funding will be accessed through joint federal and provincial funds while they are also working to determine what the losses are, what could be covered by insurance and what other outside support can be utilized.
“This is such a major event it could cripple our entire industry in B.C.,” he said.
Boon said he has been taking calls from ranchers who are getting more and more exhausted.
“They are down to their last cube of sugar. Emotions are high. There have been a lot of days I feel like I have been fighting to get them the tools they need and that’s a difficult task. They’ve been cut off from access (in evacuated areas) and have take back roads to get back in. I feel like they’ve been put in a position where they have to break the law and I find that very frustrating.”
“I don’t even want to count how many times a day I’m talking with these hardworking, tough individuals and I’ve had them breakdown on the phone when they look out their window and see they’ve lost everything.”
Boon said he sees improvement on the horizon in terms of working with the CRD and fire officials to assist ranchers in the coming days, such as getting BCCA’s Reg Steward on the ground in the area to coordinate assistance.