Not surprisingly, the Elephant Hill wildfire was the big story of the year for Ashcroft Indian Band (AIB) chief Greg Blain. “It destroyed nine houses, a triplex, and our maintenance shops,” he says. “We lost all our tools, as well as old records and maps.”
Blain was in Cherry Creek, on his way home from a meeting in Kamloops, on July 7 when he got a phone call from his son saying that Blain’s house was burning (it survived the fire). “I got back here before the fire was all the way through the reserve. I was at the band office, and then we retreated to the travel centre, then to Ashcroft Manor, and then to Spences Bridge.” Many residents of the reserve had gathered at the band office, where Blain was able to ascertain that everyone was safe.
The band established an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) and Emergency Social Services (ESS) in Ashcroft. Blain notes that the EOC ran from almost three months, and the ESS ran until the end of this month, albeit in reduced form. Repairs to damaged homes on the reserve are ongoing: “We had to get roofs and siding inspected, and a lot of insulation needed to be pulled out because of smoke damage. It’s been slow getting the new siding on; contractors are busy.”
The sites of the destroyed buildings were all cleared quickly. While the original plan was to have modular homes installed to replace the lost buildings, the Band has now agreed on a contract with Trout Creek Enterprises, a Kamloops lumber remanufacturing plant, to build new houses.
“There were a lot of hoops to jump through, and we’re waiting on final approval from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, but we hope to start building early in the New Year.” In the meantime, Blain says that while one or two people have found rental accommodations nearby, many displaced Band members are still at hotels in Ashcroft and Cache Creek.
Cheryl Wigemyr has been hired as a resilience manager, and is helping Band members set up appointments, giving them rides when needed, providing some counselling, and doing anything she can do to help out. “She has experience doing this, and is working out of the health centre. Anything that people need help with, she’s there.” He adds that staff worked tirelessly through the fire aftermath to help. “People don’t realize how much hard work staff have been doing. It’s all behind the scenes.”
Premier John Horgan visited the reserve in August and met with Blain, then toured the cemetery, which was ravaged by the fire. “I laid out a few issues, told him there was more to B.C. than the Lower Mainland,” says Blain. “We’re all citizens of this province.”
Thanks to a grant of $225,000, work has been ongoing at the historic church on the reserve, which was built around 1876. Work on the exterior and on fencing is almost complete: “We’re getting there, and it looks quite good,” says Blain. “The roof and the steeple are done. The steeple was very strong; it was still holding the bell.” Some work needs to be done on the interior, but Blain says they intend to leave it as original as possible.
Looking ahead to 2018, Blain says they intend to go ahead with the construction of two baseball fields on the reserve, funding for which was obtained in 2017, and that there are plans to add a soccer field. There will also be the construction of a six-unit Elders’ living facility, to be built near the Band office. The Band has also received funding to construct greenhouses on the site of the former drag racing track, and Blain says that’s still in progress.
Talks have been ongoing between the AIB and the Village of Ashcroft about having the Village supply water to the reserve. “We have to get it settled pretty quickly,” says Blain. “We’ll have to build a new pumphouse in anticipation of the joint venture. We’ll take money if the federal government is giving it out.
“It’s going to happen,” he adds. “It would be nice if it was sooner rather than later. The water here is very hard, and it makes it expensive to replace things.”
The Band is looking at putting in hayfields around the reserve, with four pivots to the north near Bradner Farms and two pivots to the south. “It would be for fire prevention; a buffer around the reserve,” explains Blain. “No hay fields were burned during this summer’s fires.
“This is the new normal here. Anything we can do to deflect fire we’ll do. I’ve talked to Band members, and no one expected this. We never had an opportunity to plan or prepare. We just had to deal with the aftermath, and it was a big learning experience. We’ll be better prepared for next time.”
The new maintenance sheds will be built closer to Cornwall Road for ease of access. The Band is also looking at replacing fencing that was destroyed during the wildfires. “Pretty much all the fencing needs to be replaced,” says Blain. “The Ministry of Highways will be paying for the fencing along Cornwall Road, but the Band pays for the on-reserve fencing, and it all needs to be surveyed. We’ll be asking ‘Do we need all this fencing; why was it there?'”
He says that the rebuilding process has been slower than expected; but that while there have been a few complaints, most people are okay. “At the end of the day we’ll have some nice new houses, and the community members have been very supportive. We’ve been through hard times, but most people are positive.”