Stories from the ashes

As the days get longer and the weather warms, B.C. residents start to think about the inevitable forest fire season. The age-old question pops up: “What would you rescue if your home was on fire?” Would it be the Scrabble board that carries memories of competitive game nights and alleged cheating? The cowbell your late mom used to ring so vigorously? Would it be the old rocking chair placed peacefully in the corner?

And worse: What happens after your happy place burns to the ground, leaving memories of long days on the lake and late nights by the fire in the rubble?

Last summer, residents of Gun Lake, west of Lillooet, learned the answers they didn’t want to know as they watched their homes burn in real time on social media.

Lightning is believed to have sparked the Downtown Lake fire on July 11, 2023. The fire burned out of control for weeks before a cold front caused flames to intensify resulting in the “incredibly rare” occurrence of a “fire tornado” forming over Gun Lake on Aug. 18.

In total, more than 40 properties were lost to the fire, some held in their respective families for generations, leaving families to sort through the ashes with another wildfire season fast approaching.

These are some of their stories.

‘Like watching a Hollywood movie’

Laura O’Keeffe’s family had their place on Gun Lake since 1978.

“I’ve been going up there since I was a baby,” she said. “We go up there every long weekend, every summer, New Year’s and Easter. It was my happy place.”

O’Keefe and her mom were at their happy place the night before they had to evacuate on July 31.

“Our neighbour came pounding on the door at 10:30 p.m.,” she says. “We evacuated over to the other side of the lake and we were watching it from there. We just took a few precious things. We left our beds ready to get back into, thinking that we would be coming back.”

O’Keeffe’s home was lost forever in the fire tornado.

“Not only did our trees burn, they were uprooted,” she says. “It was a really windy night. The wind just turned and brought the fire back to all of our places. It was like watching a Hollywood movie. I didn’t watch it burn. My husband told me I had to turn it off. He said I didn’t need to watch that.”

The next morning, the first thing O’Keeffe thought about was her mom’s Scrabble game she had left behind.

“I woke up and saw that my neighbours had sent a photo of them playing Scrabble into our chat. I immediately went online and tried to replace our Scrabble board,” she says. “We played it all the time. It was my mom’s from when she was young. I don’t know what I was thinking when I left it behind. It was a strange thing to think after my first initial cry.”

The family was faced with an impossible decision, and most of the things rescued had far more sentimental value than monetary worth.

“Our place was like a museum full of stuff, but we had to leave most of it. It sounds stupid, but I saved board games that I knew were impossible to find now,” says O’Keeffe. “My dad was a firefighter. He had a fire alert bus from around the 1930s that he had bought at an auction. It was a big, heavy thing. I brought it home and I felt that it was ridiculous. We used to do paint nights up there, so I brought all of our paintings. We have a shared diary that we all write in; we brought that home. We brought home the kids’ drawings that had been on the walls for years.”

When O’Keeffe was first allowed to return in September 2023, everything was gone. One of the only things that survived the disaster was a toy Tonka truck, parked amongst the rubble.

“Some of my family chose not to come up that day,” O’Keeffe says. “We just looked at the debris. We sifted through some of the rubble to see if there was anything that we could salvage. I cried when I first saw the road towards our place where the burn started. When we got to our property, I was just kind of in shock.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say the family is now starting from scratch.

“When you insure for the city, you don’t think about insuring for trees, telephone poles, your water line and your septic system. That’s not even a consideration in the city,” says O’Keeffe. “You expect a fire truck is going to arrive and save something. We have nothing left.”

O’Keeffe vows to do all she can to restore their home away from home, taking the reins from her 83-year-old mom.

But the recovery now consumes their lives.

“It’s exhausting and it takes all our time,” says O’Keeffe. “Every day, we talk about something to do with it. There are a lot of frustration and challenges. We have our ups and downs, but it feels like there are a lot more downs. We just have to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that it is not a war between each other.”

O’Keeffe gets emotional when she speaks about the little things that remind her of their loss.

“I have just been driving around lately. I just see all the green and I know our place is just a bunch of scorched debris,” she says. “I just think about the fact that I will never be able to hang a hammock in our trees again and look up into the sky.”

Something as simple as a trip to an outdoor living store can serve as a reminder of the way of life that went up in flames. “Going into Canadian Tire brings me to tears,” O’Keeffe admits. “I’ll think about the things we need and used to have. It’s crippling when we think about it. I am always surprised by how depressed I get when I go into those kinds of stores.”

Nevertheless, life still prevails at the lake, and so does the O’Keeffes’ hope of having a home there again.

“We have heard that there are some chipmunks back up there, which is good to here,” says Laura. “Grief comes in waves and unexpected ways and is different for everyone. Some people dream about it nightly, some keep envisioning the house being engulfed in flames. Some haven’t had a chance to grieve as they try to get on with recovery.”

Families say their goals of a return to normality are being held back by red tape and ever-changing goalposts.

The B.C. government’s Riparian Areas Protection Regulation requires an environmental assessment through a qualified environmental professional, which costs from $5,000 to $10,000, O’Keeffe explains.

“In October 2023, 12 owners thought they were getting a head start on obtaining this, only to be halted by the government deciding to redefine the rules in the middle of it. Even if owners wanted to, they can’t move forward until the government makes a decision,” she says.

“There is no timeline as to when this will happen. Most burnt structure debris and many burnt ‘danger’ trees are in the riparian zone, and will require heavy equipment to remove, but machinery cannot go in without the assessment, and WorkSafe BC states that workers cannot go into an area where there are danger trees.”

O’Keeffe added she believes most people will not be able to afford to rebuild.

“To get to a blank slate could cost $75,000 to $100,000 before we even begin to rebuild,” she says. “Some of the hurdles include environmental testing, tree removal, hazardous materials testing, and then removal by qualified professionals, removal of all other debris, septic systems, hydro pole replacement, provincial and SLRD government regulations and permits, skyrocketing building costs, sourcing and hiring qualified professionals, material and labour force (including food and lodging), [and] replanting trees.”

‘I knew things were never going to be normal again’

Laura’s oldest friend, Wendi Harder, has a lifetime of memories at the lake. Her mom, dad and friends built the road to their property themselves. They were also famously the first family in the area to have a phone.

“We had a phone in the tree,” laughs Harder. “Our neighbour worked for [the phone company]. They strung a telephone wire through the trees and around the lake towards our house.”

Harder had an ominous feeling things were about to change forever as she watched the fire grow on Aug. 1. Just before they were told to evacuate, she told her husband to go fishing with his friend.

“I knew things were never going to be normal again,” she says.

Harder’s parents built their home with their bare hands. It was her mom’s favourite place in the world.

“Mom turned 90 in August. The plan was that all the grandchildren would be there,” says Harder. “We were going to have her 90th birthday party at Gun Lake on Aug. 6. By that time, we were evacuated.”

Harder rescued a memento from the good times—a cowbell her mom used to ring before dinner.

“The last time I rang it, Laura came running over with her plate and cutlery,” Harder recalls.

She wanted to be the first to tell her elderly mother their place by the lake no longer existed. “When the fire hit, I sent a message to all of my friends not to call mum and ask her how she was doing,” says Harder. “She still loved to go up there. They built the place. She put the roofing on the little cabin.”

Her mom later returned to assess the damage.

“She saw the cabin as it is now. She was very stoic and sad,” Harder says. “Everything they had worked on for decades was gone. She wanted to rebuild. She wanted to get back there again.”

Sadly, the beloved matriarch passed away at the beginning of this year. “She won’t get to see the rebuild,” says Harder. “She was left with the memory of everything just gone.”

‘Like losing a member of the family’

Brenda Heikkinen was pregnant with her second son when they bought their cabin in 1999. Since then, her children have spent every summer by the lake. Little kids playing in the water quickly became grown-ups excited to spend time together as a family.

“We never had TV or internet there,” she says. “It was really great for the kids, even when they were older coming up. If I had known that was going to happen, I would have taken more stuff. I took nothing with me.”

Some of Heikkinen’s neighbours stayed until the bitter end. “They were able to save their properties. They were up there until the end. They were able to get pumps,” she says. “One of them had had a video of the fire burning at both sides of him when he was trying to get out of there. It just took off so fast. “

Heikkinen tearfully recounts the moment she found out her happy place was no more.
“I found out Aug. 2 from a close friend, with a picture, nothing left but burnt debris.

It was sickening and devastating,” she says. “It was like losing a member of the family. Before that, I kept just saying to myself that I believe in miracles.”

Heikkinen was planning to retire soon from her job of 42 years to her summer home. Now, she doesn’t know if she can retire at all. “When you’re ready to retire, it’s not like you have savings to rebuild a place,” she says. “The debris is still on the ground. I have no power poles, no water pump, not even an outhouse. We are looking at getting a trailer. There is no way that I can build a place again.”

Heikkinen has only been back once since the fire destroyed what was meant to be her idyllic escape from working life.

“It was a weird thing for me,” she says. “The picnic table behind the cabin was still standing, and a white, plastic chair. My white chair was still just sitting there.”

As far as recovery efforts, Heikkinen shares her neighbours’ frustration.

“The government has just told us what we can’t do,” she says. “You just give up.”

‘You just never think that it’s going to affect you’

Anna Earl feels like the rest of the world has forgotten about their community.

“I am not bitter,” she says. “It didn’t happen to them. They weren’t there and they didn’t see it.”

The British woman moved to Canada five years ago. “We had only bought our property at Gun Lake two years before the fire,” she says. “We bought it with the view for it to be our permanent home. It was going to be where we lived forever. We were in the process of renovating it ourselves. It was amazing and I was loving it. We had taken out a big loan.”

Anna and her husband have travelled the world, but were ready to lay down their roots.

“It’s our happy place,” she says. “I have never been somewhere and felt that same kind of affinity towards it. I have travelled the world, but I just wanted to be there all of the time. It is the most beautiful place, and it just does something to me. When I arrive in the area, I just feel like I’m at home. Losing the house was devastating.”

The Aug. 18 fire tornado took their home, a sight they never thought they would see. “That was when our house went,” Earl says. “We lived in Australia before, so we were very aware of fire as a force of nature. We knew that there were forest fires in Canada. You just never think that it’s going to affect you.”

The couple are now struggling to make ends meet, faced with the reality that you still have to pay a mortgage on a house even if it has burned down.

“Thankfully, our insurance will pay for us to rebuild,” Earl says. “Heartbreakingly, most of our neighbours are not in that position. Some people will just not be able to pay for it. Will their debris just lie on the ground?”

When Earl returned to Gun Lake, it was to an apocalyptic scene.

“There’s nothing there,” she says. “There’s some twisted metal which was the roof. The glass in the windows has melted. There are pools of hardened liquid glass on the ground. Our barbecue is gone. There is nothing left of it. There is a metal bathtub and a fireplace remaining. Other than that, it’s just ashes. It’s like someone just erased the area. It was really eerie, the end of days.”

Earl is haunted by an old rocking chair they left to burn.

“You never pack everything,” she says. “There was a beautiful old rocking chair in the house when we bought it. We miss silly things that don’t make sense.”

Coupled with the initial shock and dismay of losing it all, there are now doubts people will be allowed to rebuild their homes on the original sites.

“All of our houses were built right on the waterside because they were built so long ago. In modern times, you wouldn’t be allowed to build there. Because all of our houses are in those zones, it looks like we will not be allowed to rebuild there,” Earl explains. “They are very concerned about the environmental impact of rebuilding. If we are not allowed to build where we were, we will have to build on the other side of the road. The loss in value is huge. There are [BC Hydro] power lines in front of the lake. We would just be looking at power lines. Some days, it does feel kind of hopeless.”

‘That beautiful piece of land will never be the same’

Jessica Chardon’s property was the Gun Lake Yacht Club back in the 1930s/early 1940s. Her grandfather bought the property back in 1948, and three generations have been raised there since. At the time of the fire, it was her uncle’s primary residence.

She remembers piling as much as they could possibly carry into her car, when the call to evacuate came. “During pack-up the sound of the fire was like a freight train, and it was glowing red from above us,” Chardon says. “We tried to get our sprinkler system working, [but] it had low pressure and wasn’t working effectively.”

Chardon’s mom refused to leave her home.

“She wanted to try and organize the sprinkler system,” she says. “My mom slept in her car overnight at a safe distance from the fire and returned to the property in the morning. The wildfire structure support personnel were on our property, and they got the sprinkler system working. Mom left mid-day Aug. 1 after the wildfire structure support personnel said they would be back to set up an efficient sprinkler system. The property burned at approximately 4 p.m. that same day.”

All three historic cabins and their contents were reduced to ash. Two sheds containing family photos, family memorabilia and household goods were destroyed. Chardon’s uncle is a sculptor, and all of his equipment burned.

Chardon says the SLRD has added to the confusion and grief.

“The clean-up process has been slow and overwhelming,” she says. “There has been minimal government direction and financial assistance.”

The family now worries they will never be allowed to move back home.

“The property has been deemed high-risk from the government-acquired geotechnical survey,” Chardon says. “This will hamper rebuilding. The SLRD won’t even allow an outhouse during cleanup process. No matter what happens, that beautiful piece of land will never be the same.”

Pique reached out to the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Chair of the SLRD, Jen Ford, says every homeowner is in a different situation.

“One of the things that our staff did well from the beginning was engage with the province, [and] with Red Cross to ensure that they could connect directly with the homeowners. Each property had unique circumstances,” she said. “To go out with a blanket statement wouldn’t have worked. Not every property had the same level of need in terms of what their insurance and rebuild looked like. Our staff called each and every homeowner separately so that we knew what they needed. We couldn’t say that we gave the homeowners the same box of tools, because it didn’t work that way.”

Ford confirmed legislation has changed since some of the properties were originally built.

“There are a few properties that were built very, very close to the waterline. When legislation changes, that’s just a fact,” she says. “The waterline might also have changed. It happens in every community. It is challenging. Many of the properties up at Adams Lake [in B.C.'s Interior, which also saw a severe wildfire in 2023] are unable to rebuild what they originally had as they may have been built over the water. We are willing to work with those homeowners on a case-by-case basis.”

As for the outhouses, the SLRD’s chief administrative officer, Heather Paul, adds the regional district and province are in constant conversation.

“This conversation is one of those things that we are trying to bring up with the province,” she says. “At the time, legislation is that it has to all be septic.”

Ford stressed the SLRD is learning for the future as severe weather becomes a more regular part of life.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all for these climate events. These climate events are a reality,” she says. “We can provide info as to real life experiences on the ground. We all have valuable experience to share with the province on what worked and what didn’t work. Look at the community of Lytton—they are still grappling with how to rebuild a town almost four years after it burned down. Unfortunately, we will see it again.”

Roisin Cullen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Pique Newsmagazine