If you haven't had a chance to enter our Silent Auction to raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross' BC Fires Appeal yet, here's why you really should.
It was July 8th, and we were just two weeks away from the scheduled opening of our summer spotlight exhibition when we learned that artists Cameron Bird and Vance Theoret were being evacuated from their homes in 100 Mile House due to the BC Forest Fires.
The artists have at last been able to return home after nearly 3 weeks of evacuation, and on July 31st, we had the opportunity to catch up with them both about their experiences. Here is their story.
People are slowly returning to 100 Mile House since the evacuation order was lifted two days ago. The town is still quiet - the mills aren’t running yet, and grocery stores have just tentatively refilled their shelves with the essentials, to supply those who are returning home to assess the damages.
Sculptor Vance Theoret has spent the morning picking up supplies for his oldest son, Nick. Nick is an RCMP officer in Ashcroft and was involved in the local operation during the first few days of the Elephant Hill fires - which remain the biggest and most challenging blaze facing firefighters this season. This same fire also destroyed Nick’s home.
Vance is extremely pragmatic: 'The plan is to get him set up so he can have coffee in the morning and TV at night, eat at a table and sit in a chair' he explains matter-of-factly. Vance has been able to fill almost 2 trailers with furniture donations from family and friends to fill his son’s new accommodation. Nick has been fortunate to find it quickly in the wake of the fires, and is able to move in tomorrow.
His friend from Lac La Hache, painter Cameron Bird acknowledges gratefully, ‘We’ve been very lucky.’ Cleanup has been minimal for the Bird family, with just ash to clear. ‘Friends have smoke and water damage, some have red fire retardant they need to clean off their homes.’
‘It has made us feel better seeing the place in tact’ Cameron admits. But he is not letting his guard down yet. ‘This coming week will be tricky because it’s supposed to be so hot, and there are two fires just outside of us which are still out of control. Last night it (the fire) jumped the highway on Clinton so it’s still burning.’
Cameron continues to share: ‘Williams Lake is still on five minute alerts right now – if they get the evacuation order, they need to leave the house within five minutes.’ He has learned from his hasty retreats this month. ‘We’re not going to unpack. We’ve got a list now of what we know we need to take this time.’
‘I think it’s going to go on all summer’ he muses. It’s hard to concentrate on much else.
For Cameron and his young family, the evacuations escalated swiftly: ‘On the 7th, (of July) friends from 105 Mile were evacuated’ he recalls. ‘They moved their animals and then came to stay with us. The next morning, I was in my studio painting and I could see that the smoke in the distance was starting to get a bit crazy. Then we heard from a friend in the fire office that the evacuation (of 100 Mile) would be announced in an hour or so.’
His story continues like that of a movie: ‘We packed up and headed to our friends place in Williams Lake. I was in the truck with the kids and Amanda (Cameron’s wife) was in the car in front. On the way, we saw a fork of dry lightning hit the hill. Within 15 minutes, it had become a plume – that same fire is still burning now. We sat on the porch at Williams Lake watching fires burn from three directions.’
‘We were worried about being trapped. On the 13th, in the middle of the night we packed everybody up and took the kids and three families and went to Amanda's sister’s place in Prince George.’ It was here that they were all able to remain for the next two weeks.
Vance was showcasing his art in Calgary when the evacuation was announced. ‘I was pretty busy with the showcase, so I was preoccupied’ Vance recalls. His wife however had more free time in Calgary to follow the news. ‘She was distraught. Our son Nick had texted during the day to say he thought he had lost his place. He was so busy helping during the fires that we couldn’t hear from him again until midnight.’
Nick has a dog, and was looking after Vance’s whist he was in Calgary. ‘All he managed to do was get the two dogs out, and then the house burned down. It happened really quickly – he didn’t have time to get anything else out.’ It is hard to ruffle Vance’s feathers: ‘I only worry about things I can do something about’ he explains. ‘Once I learned that my kids are both safe, that my dogs are safe, I stopped worrying about it. Everything else is just stuff.’
I asked how it felt for Nick. ‘He was so busy he barely had time to dwell on it,’ Vance recalls. ‘He was working very long hours – but for him that was a good thing to do because he didn’t have to think about what he had lost. Nick was basically looking after everybody else, he worked all the way through it for ten more days.’ He sounds like a hero to me, but Vance is quick to share the praise, ‘There’s lots of heroes – the firefighters especially.’ He pauses, and I hear the warmth through the phone. ‘We are very proud of him.’
Cameron recalls that the Canadian Red Cross’ evacuation centre was initially set up in 100 Mile, but had to be moved to Williams Lake when 100 Mile became at risk. ‘They set up in the Hotel Ramada and we would check in every three days to register our status. For those that needed them they would give support funds and grocery vouchers. They had free food, and you could even stay at the center.’ There were cots available for people who didn’t have family in town to stay with, or the money for a hotel. ‘They (the Canadian Red Cross) did an amazing job – it was as if they had prepared for years. They made everybody feel that you meant something, that they cared.’
In fact, Cameron tells us that the whole town of Prince George has come together and made spectacular efforts to support those who had been displaced. ‘Restaurants were throwing discounts down, and stores were giving 30% off to those who had been evacuated. There was free swimming at the pool in Prince George, and the YMCA was free, all to distract the kids. Our friends who lost their whole farm had to buy lots of starter stuff, and the store just told them “take it”. For the people camped in the parking lots, trucks would drive round to refill water.’ The community spirit is phenomenal.
This spirit remained through the homecoming for 100 Mile House residents: ‘When we came home, all the fire department and the RCMP were lined up on the highway, holding huge welcome home banners and waving. Fire departments from all over the place came over on their own time. It was pretty special.’
‘With the fire trucks, the Mayor was there too. It was very sweet’ Vance adds. ‘I’m very grateful to the efforts of the firefighters on the front lines, and the Red Cross behind the scenes. I’m very happy to be able to help by donating a sculpture to them.’
In appreciation of these efforts, both artists have offered artworks as prizes in a silent auction. The highest bidders will receive their gorgeous painting or sculpture on donating the full amount of their bid to Canadian Red Cross.
Cameron has chosen his painting 'Storm Light at Canoe Creek Ranch’. 'Canoe Creek is just south-west of 100 Mile, towards Gang Ranch and the Fraser River. The Ranch is historic - it was built by Pioneers. There is also a native reserve there, and lots of First Nations people work out on the ranch.' The painting has captured a place which is seriously vulnerable to these wildfires. 'It's tough to think of losing areas like that. When you see those things gone, it takes a huge chunk of our history. They can rebuild, but it won't be the same without these historical structures.'
Vance has donated a pensive-looking soapstone bear titled ‘Two Tone, Far From Home’. He shares an anecdote from the aftermath of the fire that burned his son’s home: ‘A couple of days ago, Nick was searching in the rubble to see what he could salvage. The only thing that he found that survived was a little soapstone sculpture I had given him. Fire won’t damage soapstone, unless it causes something to fall on it.’ I sense some comfort from this finding, and in the durability of his chosen medium.
Today, over 130 BC wild fires continue to burn, and 6,000 residents remain displaced in what is one of the worst wildfire seasons in the province’s history. Many of these residents will never have the joy of returning to their homes, and for those that do, the return will at times be bittersweet as they survey the damages to their towns.
‘I’m relieved that the town centre is ok’ Cameron gratefully admits. For people in small towns across the Cariboo, where so many are self-employed or small business owners, losing the town centre and losing their businesses would be devastating. The town may never rebuild.
He uses the example of the local saw mill: ‘If we lost the mill, I don’t think they’d rebuild. That’s a lot of jobs right there.’ The mill is still on lockdown, with minimum staffing. ‘The firefighters have been amazing. You can see how fires burned right up to these structures and they somehow saved the structures.’
Vance feels for the small business owners. ‘You know, Cameron and I, we’re both self-employed and work out of our home studios’ he reminds me. ‘We nearly had to cancel our show with you, and we’ve been away from our work for almost a month.’ He empathizes: ‘It can really affect your livelihood.’
The province remains in a state of emergency. 'The fires are still burning here, it's still very smoky. There have been times when the sun is going down, that it is just a red burning ball through the haze.' Vance describes the scene.
'It's clear here today, but that can all change with the wind. You can still see massive smoke up by Loon Lake,' Cameron adds. 'Falling ash looks like snow.'
The hard work of organizations like the Canadian Red Cross remains invaluable to the residents of BC. For more information about the silent auction, or to make a donation directly to the Canadian Red Cross’ British Columbia Fires Appeal, visit our exhibition page.