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Evacuations – The men who ‘push the button’

Cariboo Regional District chair Al Richmond
Cariboo Regional District chair Al Richmond

BY BILL PHILLIPS

bill@pgdailynews.ca

If you received a call from Al Richmond yesterday, it was bad news.

“For those of you live in 108, those of you who live in 150 Mile House, if you didn’t receive a call from me today, your house is fine,” said Richmond, chair of the Cariboo Regional District, at a townhall meeting Thursday for Cariboo evacuees now displaced to Prince George. “I spoke to eight people. I told six people they lost their homes, I told one fellow he lost his shop. I told another he lost his shed. I don’t like making those calls.”

He added that it appears no residences were lost in the 103 Mile area.

Being told to evacuate your home because of imminent fire danger is likely one of the most stressful things one can go through. For Richmond, not only did he have to evacuate his home in 108 Mile House, he had to make the order … and that weighs heavily.

“No one is keeping you out of your homes because they want to do it, no one is issuing an order or an alert because it’s fun,” he said. “It’s serious business. No one is signing a state of emergency without thinking about it, because the powers that gives people is incredible. It’s a difficult time for everybody.”

The last big fire in the Cariboo was in 2010. During that year, there were 29,000 square kilometres of area under alert or order.

“Today we have just shy of 11,000 square kilometres,” said Richmond. “While that’s smaller, it’s attacking urban interfaces. It’s putting people in jeopardy.”

The fires have affected more than 34,000 people.

“In Williams Lake we’ve had a couple of good days,” he said. “Mother Nature has cooperated. Very concerned about the weekend, about the potential of lightning.”

Richmond also talked about how difficult the fire is to fight and how intense it can be. He said at one house in the 108 Mile House area, the fire department arrived before the house actually caught fire.

“The intensity of the fire, with two fire trucks, drove them out of the driveway,” he said. “They couldn’t fight the fire, they had to retreat.”

One of the crowd of about 60 people in attendance asked whether they can go back in to their homes. Other than the obvious problem that the Highway south is closed, Richmond said that, except for the emergency department, Cariboo Memorial Hospital is closed in Williams Lake and the 100 Mile House hospital is completely closed. In Williams Lake, which is only on an evacuation alert, many of the stores are closed. He said he couldn’t even get a haircut in Williams Lake yesterday.

Plus, he said, people going back in now will only become another person that has to be evacuated should the order be made for Williams Lake.

100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall
100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall

For 100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall, 8:47 will forever etched in his memory. That is the exact time Sunday night when he “pushed the button,” ordering his community evacuated.

It all started July 6 when he received a phone call from his fire department telling his they have a fire. That would be the Gustafsen Forest Service Road fire.

He thought it would be routine and went to work. When he came home, they were still working on the fire. Friday, July 7, the District of 100 Mile House issued an evacuation alert.

“When you ask if it’s easy to put this out … no,” he said, choking back tears as he recounted the events. “Sadly, the fire doubles. Sunday, the fire doubles almost again.”

About 2 p.m. Sunday, Campsall and the district staff held a community meeting, stressing to residents that they should be prepared to evacuate.

“Sunday night, Forestry runs, not walks, into my office, ‘we’ve got to move,’” he said. “At 8:47, I’ll never forget, I had to push the button. But I have to say we were ready.”

Forty-five minutes after the order was issued, everyone in town was notified of the order and an hour-and-a-half later the community was largely evacuated.

“For the first six days of this fire, we had the fires zero per cent contained,” he said. “Today we had 15 per cent contained. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but to us that’s a heck of a lot better than zero and I just got a notice that we’re at 20 per cent.”

He stressed that doesn’t mean the community is out of the woods and the evacuation order remains in effect. But it was a good day.

For Campsall, the trip to Prince George to speak at the townhall and meet with some of the people evacuated from the community, was the first time he’s been out of the community since the fires started.

“It’s a tough day for me for me to be here,” he said. “But I’m going back and we’re not going to leave.”

And making the call to evacuate the community is not an easy decision.

“That is the worst thing we have to do,” he said, choking back tears again. “We don’t ever take it lightly.”

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