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More structures destroyed as wildfires spread north of Pemberton

Slow Food Cycle organizers, vendors pivot after cancelling Sunday event in solidarity with evacuees
The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District’s Tim Conrad joined BCWS fire info officer Paula Walbauer for a video update on Aug. 21.

The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) confirmed more structures have been lost to the Downton Lake fire burning in the Upper Bridge River Valley, one in a series of wildfires north of Pemberton that exploded in size over the last week.

In an update on Monday, Aug. 21, the regional district acknowledged additional structures burned down on the west side of Gun Lake, but said the exact number remains unknown.

Tim Conrad, public information officer with the SLRD’s Emergency Operations Centre, pleaded for patience as officials work to identify the properties lost, while BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) crews continue working around the clock to attack the blaze and protect structures.

“This is an active fire area … and the work to be done will take [more than] a week,” Conrad said in a video update posted to the SLRD’s YouTube channel. “So please bear with us while we work through that process. I know it’s very difficult to wait, but unfortunately this is the challenge that is in front of us. We have a lot of things to overcome.”

The SLRD previously confirmed on Aug. 6 the fire had destroyed two single-family recreational properties and at least 12 outbuildings in the Gun Lake area, about 120 kilometres north of Whistler, in addition to another single-family home burned down by the neighbouring Casper Creek fire in the Highline Road area.

Heavy smoke is hampering progress, as well as the significant growth of wildfires in the area of late. On Aug. 16, crews estimated the Downton Lake fire, which ignited near Gold Bridge on July 13, was burning about 2,603 hectares, while the Casper Creek blaze, discovered on July 11 west of Lillooet, above Seton and Carpenter lakes, sat at approximately 4,650 hectares.

By early Thursday morning, Aug. 24, the Downton Lake fire was burning an estimated 7,410 hectares, or just over 74 square kilometres.

Meanwhile, BCWS estimated the nearby Casper Creek wildfire had grown to 10,604 hectares by Aug. 24. The blaze now covers more than 106 square km after jumping south over Carpenter Lake and Road 40 late last week.

Fast-spreading  fires prompted the SLRD to expand existing evacuation orders in Electoral Area A on Aug. 18 “due to immediate danger to life safety.” The order now applies to all SLRD properties west of Terzaghi Dam. Specifically, it affects Gun Lake, Lajoie Lake, and Slim Creek areas; Gold Bridge, Brexton and Bralorne; properties near Marshall Lake and north of Carpenter Lake, and around Tyaughton Lake. The South Chilcotin Mountains Park and all rec sites and trails near the wildfire zone are also closed.

“Both of these fires are giving crews lots of challenges, so you can expect that evacuation orders in the area will remain in place and there are no immediate plans for downgrades due to the dangerous conditions, road access and loss of communication and utilities that has happened in the area,” Conrad said.

Though wildfire activity has eased slightly since the weekend, the SLRD said flames ripping through the area left new hazards in their wake, like downed hydro lines and debris falling on roads.

BCWS warned last week high winds and dry lightning brought about by a weather system sweeping across the province on Thursday, Aug. 17 could worsen fire conditions. The grim prediction came true, as fast-moving fires displaced thousands and wreaked havoc on communities in the Okanagan and Shuswap regions.

The Downton Lake and Casper Creek blazes were two of 377 active fires burning across B.C. as of Pique’s weekly press deadline on Aug. 22.

“We know that’s difficult given that people have been displaced for some time and will be for a bit yet,” Conrad said. “Resources are stretched across the province. Some things may not happen at a speed that matches your expectations or things that you’ve seen in the past—this is complex work that we’re into at this point, with both immediate and long-term needs for resources. So many people from within the regions and many others are doing everything they can.

“Please everyone, take care of yourself, support others,” he added. “We will get through this. You will get through this.”

State of emergency puts the brakes on Slow Food Cycle

The situation led organizers of Pemberton’s popular Slow Food Cycle to cancel the annual event at the 11th hour.

On the third Sunday each August, Pemberton Meadows Road closes to accommodate a crowd of about 3,000 cyclists rolling between farms and food stands. This year, with Upper Bridge River Valley residents ordered to leave via the Hurley Forest Service Road, the Slow Food Cycle route coincided with their evacuation path.

“Slow Food Cycle is more than a tourism event for a lot of people—for a lot of small businesses, vendors and farmers, that represents their best day of the year,” explained Christine Raymond, executive director with event organizer Tourism Pemberton. “But these are also our neighbours, our community, and we didn’t want to add to the burden of the wildfire situation. So you have families losing their home, and then families losing their best chance at [generating] revenue … it was a very hard balancing act.”

Though several ideas were raised during a Friday afternoon meeting between Raymond, the SLRD, RCMP, B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation, and local fire crews—including closing one lane and having a police escort on standby—organizers ultimately made the difficult call to shut down the event altogether after the province declared a State of Emergency later Friday evening.

“That kind of changed our perspective on the event a little bit,” Raymond said.

Organizers instead pivoted to figure out a new way to support farmers, vendors, and small businesses, “because that road had another priority that day,” she said.

While Slow Food Cycle organizers managed to throw together a standalone pop-up event at Cold Creek Acres farm, featuring a barbecue, live music and beer, the Whistler Farmers’ Market jumped onboard to accommodate several vendors impacted by the cancellation, offering space to offload at least a portion of the copious amounts of goods they had harvested and prepared in anticipation of Sunday’s event.

Vendors were all “very understanding,” Raymond said, as were participants.

“When I sent an email to the 1,500 people that registered online, to let them know to please not visit Pemberton that day, to not overwhelm us, a lot of people responded, ‘How do I not get a refund and donate my registration fee to the wildfire situation?’” she explained.

Each year, Slow Food Cycle raises $1,000 for a local organization, Raymond added. “I’m hoping this year, we’re still going to be able to reach that goal,” she said. “And be able to support our neighbouring community even more.”