On a sunny afternoon in mid-July, the highway to Cache Creek — and the town itself — should be bustling with activity, as residents go about their business and tourists and travellers pass through or stop off.
At 3:20 p.m. on July 18, however, Highway 1 from Ashcroft to Cache Creek is almost empty. There are two cars ahead of me going north, and no one going south. The village has just reopened to residents, who have been evacuated since July 7, and when, a few minutes earlier, I rounded the last bend on 97C heading toward the junction with Highway 1 there was a long line of vehicles patiently waiting.
Three police officers are stopping all the vehicles, asking for identification to prove that the occupants are Cache Creek residents returning home. When I pull up — armed with an email from RCMP Sgt. Annie Linteau that gives me permission to enter Cache Creek — I’m asked to wait for a few minutes before proceeding, so that priority can be given to Cache Creek residents.
There are two other cars ahead of me, waiting, and soon another two join us. After about 10 minutes a police officer tells the two cars ahead of me that they can proceed, then comes up to my window and says it will just be another minute: “We’re trying to keep some distance between cars.”
I ask where he’s from, and the officer replies “Keremeos.” I reply “Ah, we have your sergeant now [Ashcroft detachment commander Sgt. Kathleen Thain transferred to Ashcroft from Keremeos last October]. And we’re very glad to have her here, with everything that’s gone on recently.”
The officer nods. “Yes, she’s very down-to-earth and has a great sense of humour.” He looks north up the highway. “Okay, you’re good to go.”
I pull onto Highway 1. This stretch of road has been closed to all traffic except emergency vehicles, first responders, and other essential traffic since July 7, so it is the first time I have seen the extent of the damage for myself. The hillside to the east, on the other side of the Bonaparte River, is scorched black, and the fire has torn trails through the Wastech property beside the highway.
Rattlesnake Hill is black from top to bottom, and I can see that the fire made its way to within feet of the south end of the Sage and Sands trailer park, only being stopped by the Bonaparte and by the tireless air crews who rained fire retardant down on the town, as evidenced by the patches of vivid red that stain the hillsides and the house perched high above Collins Road.
A sign at the side of the road as the highway dips into town reads simply “Welcome home”. The “open” sign is lit up at the Starhouse Restaurant, but the parking lot is empty and the restaurant itself is dark. All the parking lots are empty, and when I get to the junction of Highways 1 and 97C I am the only vehicle on the road.
The parking lot at the Cache Creek fire hall and community hall is anything but empty, with a range of fire vehicles parked there. Members of the Cache Creek Volunteer Fire Department, as well as the volunteers who have been working to keep crews fed, are standing outside the hall. A slow but steady stream of returnees make their way down Highway 1; those who turn onto Quartz Road are greeted by another “Welcome home” sign, and the returnees invariably wave to the firefighters and volunteers, who happily wave back.
One of the firefighters admits that it was “really creepy” in the village for the first two or three days after the evacuation order was issued, as the town was virtually deserted. Now, however, the town is slowly stirring and coming back to life again.
Cache Creek fire chief Tom Moe said that it was an “incredible feeling” to see people driving back into the community. “We’ve been working hard for 12 days to make this happen. To see them coming home with smiles on their faces is making me tear up a little. Everybody’s happy to be home, and we’re happy to see them.”
WATCH: Cache Creek fire chief Tom Moe helps residents return home
LIVE: Returning to Cache Creek. For more: http://www.ashcroftcachecreekjournal.com/news/returning-evacuees-need-to-think-safety-first-for-food-water-and-more/Posted by Ashcroft Cache Creek Journal on Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Moe goes out to speak with the driver of a returning vehicle, who gives him a hug before continuing down Quartz Road. A bright and shiny BC Hydro vehicle is pulled up outside the fire hall, and Moe says that it is on loan to the Cache Creek Fire Department.
“Our Unit 1, that we use to haul crew around, has some very bad mechanical issues,” says Moe. “Hydro has graciously donated this truck for us to use until we get a replacement. The support has been incredible; it never ends. It’s a small town, right?”
I look at the hillside on the other side of Highway 1, looming over the fire hall. It, too, bears red stains on its lower levels. More ominously, the top is scorched black, showing how close the fire came to the hall and town. “At one point we thought we’d have to evacuate the fire hall,” says Moe.
Numerous BC Hydro vehicles trundle down Quartz Road. Crews are currently working to rebuild 11 transmission structures that were damaged by the wildfires, and due to the challenging terrain and limited access to the area are having to use specialized cranes and track equipment.
I gather the firefighters and volunteers for a picture. “Notice how there are more volunteers than firefighters?” says someone. “These ladies really looked after us all.”
I tell Moe that I’d like to speak with him at more length for an article. “I’m here every day this week,” he replies. “Drop by anytime.”
I drive down Stage Road to Highway 97. Across the road I can just see the playing field at Cache Creek Elementary School, which I know has been used as a camp for the fire crews and others working in the area. I try to drive in to get a picture, but a security guard stationed by the entrance politely but firmly says no. She lets me drive in to turn around and get back on the highway, and as I make my circle I see that the field resembles a military camp, with a dozen or more large structures and dozens of tents, large and small, dotted about the grass.
I pull back onto the highway and head south. There is one vehicle ahead of me going in the same direction, and a semi behind me, our small convoy the only things I can see moving as we pass the deserted parking lots and head out of town.
At the junction with 97C to Ashcroft, the police officers have gone. The barriers that had blocked the way to Cache Creek for 12 days have been moved to the side of the road, where they sit somewhat forlornly. “I hope we don’t need you again,” I mutter to myself as I turn onto 97C.
I think of the hastily painted “Welcome home” signs on the roads into Cache Creek, and wonder about them. In the midst of all the turmoil, someone thought to make them and then put them up, to greet the returning evacuees. It’s a small thing, to be sure; but sometimes the small things make the biggest impression.
Welcome home indeed, Cache Creek. We missed you, and worried about you, and it’s good to have you back.