A willingness to try something new led a Williams Lake woman to enjoy a 40-year plus career in forestry.
“That was a good way to finish my career,” Bev Atkins recalled of her retirement from the BC Wildfire Service in December of 2018.
Launching a career path in a primarily male-dominated industry was no piece of cake, but Atkins has never been one to back away from a challenge.
While forestry did not initially interest Atkins, who grew up at her family homestead in Meldrum Creek, she knew she did not want to leave the area to become a teacher.
After graduating high school in 1976, Atkins was enrolled in the Vancouver-based Native Indian Teacher Education Program and completed the first two years through correspondence in Williams Lake.
“I learned a lot and enjoyed it, but when we had to move to campus in Vancouver, I got cold feet,” she said.
Atkins instead married her husband, Spencer, and said six months after their wedding knew she had to do something.
“Being that I was raised on a farm, being outdoors was a natural fit for me,” she said, noting she had previously worked as a summer student with the Ministry of Agriculture.
At 22-years-old she applied at the local forestry office in Williams Lake.
“The first day in the bush was trying to follow him [a workmate] along the steep banks along the Fraser River out past the Ashtray,” she said.
“It was a good thing he had a dog because the dog kept running back to check on me.”
Despite describing forestry as the school of hard knocks, Atkins said there was a strong sense of family and eagerness for people to teach and mentor others in the learn as you go field in which you had to be ready for anything.
Women were often outnumbered but did make up most silviculture crews which Atkins was a part of.
She said it was in 1982 when they had started to ask why women could not be further involved in roles such as fire response officers.
“We pushed our way through and challenged the process and got to do those things,” Atkins said.
“It wasn’t for the faint of heart, and while we were supported, we stood for what we wanted, and we did it.”
After taking some time to travel, Atkins would work as a small forestry consultant before heading to UBC’s Alex Fraser Research Forest in Williams Lake as a silviculture administrator, where she spent 15-years.
After UBC downsized its staff, Atkins would venture to do new roles with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural, Resource Operations and Rural Development, such as First Nation engagement, and BC Timber Sales in 2005.
Always on the lookout for something new to broaden her experiences, Atkins took up the opportunity in 2011 to work with BC Wildfire Service.
As wildfires raged across the Cariboo-Chilcotin region in an unprecedented summer of 2017, Atkins served as a logistics chief, ensuring everything from catering, accommodation, security and equipment was looked after.
“In 2017, we pulled a 16 or 17-hour shift, which we don’t typically do, but that’s where we were,” she said.
More than 1.2 million hectares were burned in B.C.
Before retiring, Atkins worked as a wildfire prevention officer assisting local governments with fire mitigation projects within their communities.
Currently, she volunteers with the Red Cross health equipment loan program and is approved to serve as a Red Cross emergency response supervisor in any world crisis.
“After 2017, the whole Cariboo proved how resilient we are, and I think through all of the trauma we get in these big diaster events, there’s resilience, and I’m not one to shy away from it, so it will be interesting if I get that call,” she said.
She is also a current volunteer with the Cariboo Chilcotin Elder College and is a member of its board of directors.
Her husband is a labourer at West Fraser Plywood, and her brother lives at the Meldrum Creek homestead, which goes back to the late 1800s after lands were preempted by her great-grandfather, Thomas Meldrum who arrived in the Cariboo around the same time as pioneer William Pinchbeck.
Akins and a friend recently completed a sewing project in which they made pillow slips for 22-residents of Williams Lake Seniors Village, in which her mother resides.
“I just don’t see a need to leave the Cariboo,” Atkins said. “I’ve got family here and lots of friends.”
Rebecca Dyok, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Williams Lake Tribune