Last summer’s devastating wildfires in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region brought moving stories of resilience in the face of disaster and examples of people working together to help those in need. Tourism operators from 108 Mile Ranch shared theirs at go2HR’s Tourism and Hospitality Occupational Health and Safety Summit held in Kelowna last November, and presented key points on preparing for future disasters.
When the Gustafsen fire erupted on July 6, Andrew Cuthbertson and Keith Bale, general manager and restaurant manager of the 108 Golf Resort respectively, had only minutes to grab what they could when they were forced to evacuate. But they soon found themselves on the front line of the fight against the fire, close enough to feel the heat, with helicopters flying overhead all day long.
Cuthbertson and Bale returned to the resort to cook for the firefighters, pilots and first responders. With no electricity, Bale used barbecues to cook breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the growing number of firefighters housed at the resort as more fires broke out. He quickly found himself preparing meals for 300 people a day, creatively utilizing limited ingredients and supplies that were available to him.
Despite working long hours, Cuthbertson said it was uplifting to see grateful crews able to relax and enjoy a good meal after fighting fires for 12 hours. “You could see the moment they got to the resort, they were drained,” he said. He was even able to get some of the firefighters out to play on the golf course one day.
For Bale, one outstanding memory happened about the tenth day in when there was a tense silence as the firefighters came in for breakfast.
“Today’s the day we’re going to win or lose,” the fire chief told Bale.
The firefighters were gone all day.
“We sat and watched and then all of a sudden this huge flame came up over the hill,” said Bale, adding the eerie flame continued for almost an hour before disappearing.
When the firefighters came in for dinner, Bale said he had never seen a crew of people so happy. “They won,” said Bale. “That’s when they knew there was light, they were going to get the fire out.”
Five days later the evacuation order was lifted.
From July 10 to 24, the 108 Golf Resort donated 550 room nights plus RV sites to firefighters while its restaurant fed over 6,200 meals to crews. These efforts were supported by resort owner Jessica Liu, who donated $10,000 in food and beverages, and the local Save On Foods, which allowed Bale and a police escort into the closed store to fill carts with much-needed food.
Pat and Juanita Corbett, tourism consultants and founders of the Hills Health Ranch, were grateful to have had returned to their former ranch to help look after helicopter pilots, crews and firefighters after the area was evacuated.
“I think, for everyone, when you’re asked to come back you just automatically say yes, you don’t think about yourself,” said Juanita. “You’re just worried about everybody else.”
They rose to the challenge of supporting the crews despite being isolated with no supplies and no staff.
Juanita’s voice quavered with emotion as she described seeing the firefighters coming in — exhausted, absolutely black from head to toe. Seeing how filthy there were, Juanita offered to do their laundry in her nearby home.
While she was grateful to still have a home, Juanita described feeling helpless after hearing how over 40 of her friends’ homes had burned to the ground.
While she would step up to help again, despite developing pneumonia from the wildfire smoke, Juanita said there needs to be something put in place by agencies such as WorkSafeBC to assist volunteers like herself. “You’ve got no equipment to protect yourself and no one to get it from,” she said.
With climatologists warning about a new era of extremes, the massive fires over the summer could foreshadow the new normal, suggested Pat. He urged people to check the business interruption coverage on their insurance policies.
“You may not have a fire, but your business might be shut down for weeks in prime time,” he said. He also advised everyone to make a 20-minute evacuation plan, carry water and keep their vehicles’ gas tanks full in the summer because of traffic congestion during an evacuation.
“If you had a 20-minute warning to evacuate your home or business, what would you do?”