More than 100 residents of Loon Lake gathered at a community meeting in Cache Creek on the morning of August 20, to hear information and ask questions prior to being allowed to return to the community at 1 p.m. that day. The Loon Lake area had been under Evacuation Order since July 14.
Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) chair John Ranta, who chaired the meeting, expressed his sadness for the people who lost their homes, and said that a variety of organizations were available to step forward to help people rebuild their lives. Representatives from many of those organizations were on hand, starting with Glen Burgess of the Wildfire Management Branch, who is the current incident commander for the Elephant Hill wildfire.
He gave an overview of the current fire situation, and said that “From our perspective, the corridor along Loon Lake is safe.” He noted that 700 crew members and more than 100 pieces of equipment were at work on the fire, adding that most of those people were on the perimeter of the fire, not at its centre. “You may not see anyone, but we’re there.”
He said that when residents returned home they would see fire on the hillsides, adding “We feel it’s safe to be back in the residences and properties on Loon Lake.” He warned returning residents to be wary of “ash pits” on their properties, where organic matter may have burned underground. “It might look safe, but you could get a nasty surprise.”
He also warned of the narrow, winding road with steep banks on either side leading in to the lake. “Rocks and trees might fall on the road, so be careful and cautious. And there is that same potential on your properties.”
He noted that the fire will probably continue until the snow falls. “You’re still in a large fire area. Stay within your area, and don’t wander off into the fire.”
He said that the area is moving into a fall weather pattern: “That’s in our favour.” And he added that even though the area had been burnt, it will come back. “The grass is already coming back. Mother Nature takes care of herself, and it is returning.”
Staff-Sergeant Bob Fogarty of the RCMP said he has been running the command post in Clinton, and that he is excited that the people of Loon Lake are coming home. He explained that 100 RCMP officers have been working the area from Skeetchestn to 100 Mile House, manning checkpoints and doing patrols in the back country to protect properties.
Ranta explained that the checkpoint that had been located at 20 Mile was being moved to the back of Loon Lake Road to prevent people getting into the back country, which is still under Evacuation Order.
Debbie Sell of the Emergency Operations Centre operated by the TNRD in Kamloops said that no passes, permits, or ID were needed to access Loon Lake, and that the road is open to all. She added that the water system is back on, but that Loon Lake is under a Boil Water Notice for the next few days. Ranta noted that this was a precautionary measure only, as tests of the water showed that it is clear.
Pick-up arrangements for fridges and freezers that residents want to dispose of has been arranged for Tuesday, August 22 and Sunday, August 27. They should be placed close to the road, with the lids and doors either securely duct-taped shut or removed. They can also be taken to the transfer station, which has plenty of space.
Spoiled food can also be taken to the transfer station, with no tipping fees. The Loon Lake transfer station will be open extended hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from August 21 to 27) to help residents dispose of items.
Sally Watson—TNRD director for Area “E”—noted that at one point, only Jesmond, Big Bar, and Canoe Creek within her area were not under an Evacuation Order or Alert. “This isn’t going to be easy for anybody,” she said. “It will take us all a lot of work to get back to normal.”
Jeff Harrison—president of the Loon Lake Volunteer Fire Department Society—was visibly moved before starting his presentation, and had to wait several seconds to compose himself. “It’s been a tough five weeks,” he said. “It’s been very emotional for everybody. All the firefighters are exhausted, and nobody is more emotionally exhausted than those who lost structures.
“This has been so hard for all of you who are residents: seasonal or permanent. It seems like a long time, and it has been, but we wanted to make sure it was safe before you went back.
“We ask you to be vigilant [about fire], but use common sense. If it’s not a threat to structures and is way up on the hillside, don’t be alarmed. And don’t call individual firefighters at their homes. If you’re worried about fire, call 9-1-1.”
Harrison reiterated the plea for people to stay out of the back country. He also warned of an increased wildlife presence in the area, as animals have been pushed out of their regular habitats because of the fire.
“There are lots of animals around, so be vigilant about predators. They’re hungry.”
An audience member stood up to commend the Loon Lake firefighters and all those battling the fire. “I’m impressed by the work you did. If not for you, there’d be a lot more structures lost. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” The comment led to a standing ovation.
Tammy Suitor of Samaritan’s Purse noted that the volunteer group had been in the area for several weeks, helping residents of Boston Flats, the Ashcroft Reserve, and Williams Lake. “We come in in the aftermath and help homeowners get back to normality,” she said. “We do ash-sifting and debris-cleaning, and work with people on their primary residences, and with people who are not insured or who are under-insured.
“It’s a free service, and we’re here to help you move forward.”
Ella West of the Canadian Red Cross said that she was very excited to hear that Loon Lake residents were able to go home. She noted that residents need to register in order to access funds, and that the Red Cross has other services to offer, including cleaning and fire kits that were available at the meeting. She added that the Red Cross has set up sites in Cache Creek, Clinton, and 100 Mile House.
Kristi Rintoul of United Way Thompson-Nicola-Cariboo said that the United Way is helping to coordinate donations, and has volunteers available to come out and help residents. “We will try to help in whatever way we can.
“Have a safe journey home; and we wish you all the best.”