It was 1:14 p.m. on Thursday, July 6, when the B.C. Wildfire Service warned on Twitter about a two-hectare fire, about the size of two playing fields, that was burning just west of 100 Mile House.
The blaze along the Gustafsen North Forest Service Road, thought to be caused by lightning, was driven by high temperatures and strong winds, with no rain in the forecast for more than a week.
Mitch Campsall, the part-time mayor of 100 Mile House, was working at his bottled water company when his fire chief phoned that afternoon. It was his first briefing on the fire, but there would be many, many more to come.
"Firefighters, forestry workers, team leaders were letting us know what we had, what was going on, and how serious it was getting," Campsall recalled.
"It was expanding pretty fast. ... By Friday, we realized this was going to be a monster."
Indeed, by that Thursday evening, the Gustafsen fire had grown to five square kilometres, . Properties at risk were being evacuated. Firefighters said they would work through the night to build containment lines, but by midday on Friday, July 7, the wildfire would be eight times bigger.
Friday, July 7 -- near Spokin Lake
Firefighters, though, could not focus just on the out-of-control Gustafsen inferno. On that Friday, more than 140 new wildfires -- many of them "aggressive" -- were started in B.C., mostly in the Central Interior.
One of those new fires was on Spokin Lake Road, 20 km east of Williams Lake, a blaze that today is still ranked a high-priority fire.
Scott Zigler, his wife Lacy Wilson and their three young daughters live on Spokin Lake Road. On Friday afternoon, Zigler, a welding contractor, was at work at the Mount Polley mine near Quesnel Lake when dry lightning crackled overhead.
He could see big plumes of smoke and some flames in the distance, and began to worry when he could not reach his wife. He and a colleague raced home, and during their 65-km drive along a winding rural road passed about 30 small fires -- everything from brush to equipment to outbuildings was burning.
"It was pretty dramatic. It was like a bad dream," said Zigler, 36.
As he approached his driveway, he saw police ordering people to evacuate. There were smouldering branches falling on the road leading to his house, water-bombing planes flying overhead and flames about 300 to 400 metres away.
His wife, who had been at a nearby lake with their daughters, arrived home at the same time.
"It was a fairly traumatic experience to go through," he said. "The girls were just crying."
Zigler grabbed some valuables and sentimental items, including his rodeo belt buckles and his dogs. He loaded his three horses in his trailer and his friend's trailer, and let his chickens and cats out so they stood a chance of escaping if the fire got too close.
He and his wife fled in separate vehicles. She stopped to get gas, and he and his buddy drove to nearby Big Lake to leave the horses at a friend's place. In a short span of time, though, flames jumped the road and he could no longer join up with his wife and daughters, who took refuge at a friend's house in 141 Mile House, about 14 km away.
It would take Zigler until 11 p.m. that night to be reunited with his family, as he was forced to take dusty back roads crammed with panicky drivers trying to get to safety. Zigler and his friend stopped several times to help people attempting to save their horses, one person who accidentally left a dog behind in the house, and a frail neighbour suffering from cancer. A convoy of vehicles formed behind their truck. Along the way, they also opened farmyard gates so animals left behind could have an escape route.
"We could see flames burning the tops of trees in my neighbour's yard," said Zigler.
His route took him near another powerful fire that flared up that afternoon at 150 Mile House, just south of Williams Lake. "There was sparks hitting my windshield. There was fire burning on both sides of us -- spot fires that were burning trees," said Zigler.
Friday, July 7 -- near Ashcroft
Another fire erupted that day near Ashcroft, the fire service warning in a tweet at 1:26 p.m. that it was 50 hectares (0.5 square km). But in only a few hours, the blaze would grow 14 times bigger and devour multiple homes on the Ashcroft Reserve.
When Ester Spye left her home on the reserve that afternoon, the flames were just a few hundred metres away. The air was thick with smoke and she could feel the heat on her skin.
"I thought I was safe because (the fire) was down at the end of the reserve, but it came up the gully and we had to go fast. I couldn't save my cat, he wouldn't come to me. I got my dog but I lost my house," an emotional Spye recalled. "We didn't have time to get anything because it was coming really fast and hot."
She and her dog Sweets hopped into the back of a truck that was driving through the reserve picking people up, and she asked friends to drive her to Cache Creek, where her niece Heidi Billy lives. But Cache Creek had just been ordered evacuated, so Spye and Billy caught a ride to Kamloops, where they sought help at an evacuation centre.
Later that Friday, the same fire would roar through the Boston Flats mobile home park, razing all but one home in the small community between Ashcroft and Cache Creek. One thousand residents from both Cache Creek and 150 Mile House were among the thousands of people in the B.C. Interior evacuated from their homes that day, described by the wildfire service as one of their busiest days in recent memory.
Just hours before the devastation in Ashcroft and Boston Flats, Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who is responsible for emergency preparedness, was at home in Kamloops loading his pickup truck with supplies to go to his cottage at Shuswap Lake with his wife and three daughters. He had been briefed Thursday, July 6, about the fledgling fires, and had asked for updates on Friday -- especially about the Ashcroft-Cache Creek fire. His kids were seat-belted into the pickup when his deputy minister phoned at 3 p.m.
"I was going to talk to my deputy on the way out to the lake, and the kids began to realize something was going awry when I turned the truck off," Stone said. "She was very very concerned at that point at a whole bunch of other fires that were seemingly popping up every five or 10 minutes around the province."
Stone and John Rustad, the forests minister, decided that a fire-briefing teleconference call scheduled for Saturday morning needed to happen immediately. "The situation was worsening. ... The dry lightning was coming through. We couldn't wait," said Rustad, who had became increasingly worried throughout the day.
Friday, July 7, 8:15 p.m. -- A provincial state of emergency
At the end of the phone call, involving the ministers' staff, emergency management officials and the premier's office, a provincial state of emergency was declared -- the first one in 14 years. The last state of emergency in B.C. was also caused by wildfires, declared in August 2003 due to devastating infernos in Kelowna and Barriere.
Stone signed the order at 8:15 p.m.
"I remember thinking at the time, 'Boy, did we jump the gun? Are we being too aggressive with this thing,'" Rustad recalled. "And, of course, on Saturday morning when I started to get the reports in I thought, 'Thank God we took those steps.'"
Saturday, July 8 -- Evacuations continue
By last Saturday morning, 182 wildfires were ablaze in B.C. and dozens of evacuation orders would be issued as the day unfolded.
"(Evacuations) are extremely traumatic for people. These are families, lots of kids involved, who are being uprooted and taken out of their homes and they are driving often hours to evacuation centres not knowing for sure when they go back home if their home is still going to be there. And all their belongings and pets and livestock and everything else that adds additional layers of stress on everyone's shoulders," said Stone, who didn't sleep much the previous evening.
"There's a lot going on in your head when you are thinking about 200 fires and how close they are to communities."
In Prince George, fire chief John Iverson sent an email to city councillors on July 8 saying the city should be prepared to receive up to 10,000 evacuees. An emergency reception centre was set up at the College of New Caledonia and, by Saturday night, 80 people were sleeping there.
Sunday, July 9, 8:47 p.m. -- 100 Mile House
After deliberating all day Sunday, the mayor, the fire chief and the town manager of 100 Mile House decided to evacuate their community of 2,000 at 8:47 p.m., as the original two-hectare fire outside the town limits had by then exploded to about 4,000 hectares (40 square km).
Mayor Campsall, who is also a long-haul truck driver, said signing the evacuation order was "the hardest decision" of his life.
"Within 45 minutes, our search and rescue team knocked on every door, hand delivered (notices) to each person and said, 'You've got to go, and you've got to go now.' Within an hour and a half, our town was evacuated," he said, pausing to take big breaths of air to calm his wavering voice as he talked.
"I never got one bad comment from anyone in the municipality. They understood."
Residents were told to register at an evacuation centre in Prince George because Kamloops could not accommodate any more evacuees. Prince George is usually a four-hour drive along Hwy. 97 but parts of that route were closed, so instead it was an eight-hour drive though the dusty night along Hwy. 5.
One of the phone calls Campsall received that night was from Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall, who told him: "You can send them all here to Prince George. We are more than ready to accept and help."
"That was a tough conversation," Hall recalled. "This has been an emotional time for us."
Campsall stayed behind in 100 Mile House after everyone left, walking the empty, barricaded streets at 3 a.m. Monday. They looked like a scene out of a science-fiction movie: dark, empty and eerie.
"You know there's a good chance this fire could take out our community. That's tough, that's the realization you come to. It's a pretty horrible feeling."
Monday morning, July 10 -- A brief return home
Glenda Wilson, her sons and mother fled the Ashcroft reserve on Friday, July 7, as flames descended on the community. On Monday, the reserve remained under an evacuation order, but residents were allowed to return under escort to assess the damage to their community. What she saw was a shock.
"There was nothing -- it was just black. We're just like, holy smackers. I had to hold some tears back," she said. "It's unreal."
Wilson lives two houses from her mother, and both homes were saved but the places in between -- one belonging to her aunt and another to a friend -- were reduced to rubble.
"The fire was just picking and choosing what it wanted to burn," she said.
Monday, July 10, 6 p.m. -- The biggest evacuation alert so far
After their evacuation on July 7, Zigler, his wife and two of their daughters parked their travel trailer in the Williams Lake stampede grounds, sharing the space with 350 to 400 other evacuees.
The anxious people were getting little information about the fate of their houses, and the rumour mill about possible fires here or there scared everyone.
"It's smoky and it's not good. For the most part, the poor people are so uninformed, they have no idea. You have a knot in your stomach. You have no idea what you're up against," he said.
Zigler and other volunteers were able to re-enter the evacuation zone to retrieve horses, dogs and cats left behind. At one point, about 300 horses were at the stampede grounds, but most were later moved to Prince George.
There were many donations of hay for the horses and food for people by local businesses and residents. Zigler and others worked in the stampede grounds kitchen, where meals were organized for the evacuees.
"People are really stressed. They are not eating full meals," he said.
Then, at 6 p.m. on Monday, the 10,000 residents of Williams Lake were put on evacuation alert -- meaning a full-scale evacuation could be necessary if forecast winds blew flames closer to the city. Many in the stampede grounds began to head north to Prince George, and Zigler sent his two girls there to stay with their grandmother and 11-year-old sister.
"There was a bit of widespread panic with the alert coming in," said Zigler, who remained in Williams Lake for another day. "People were filled to the top with anxiety."
Tuesday, July 11 -- Welcome to Prince George
"Tuesday, we received five buses full of evacuees from the Williams Lake area. We are getting them from all areas. Five or six or a dozen vehicles travelling together, driving motor homes, pulling trailers, in a convoy," said Hall.
In addition to 200 cots at CNC, room for evacuees was expanded to 250 beds at UNBC and 180 at PGSS. By the end of the day, 4,000 evacuees had registered in Prince George, with many in hotels, camping throughout the city or staying with friends.
"You get up to the evacuation sites and meet these people that are coming in -- it's heart wrenching. This is unprecedented for us," Hall said.
Tuesday, July 11 -- More firefighters begin to arrive
On Day 5 of the crisis, when the 1,600 B.C. firefighters and support staff had been working around the clock to battle the 200 wildfires burning in B.C.'s Interior, some help was on its way.
About 300 firefighters from other provinces began to arrive Tuesday, including Clifton McKay, who also came for personal reasons since his parents live near Williams Lake.
"My parents' place was burnt over by one of the fires," said McKay, after arriving in Kamloops from Alberta. "My dad is actually still out there. He managed to save the house, but the rest of the place got burned."
Officials and residents got a bit of a reprieve on Wednesday when the winds they worried would blow flames into Williams Lake failed to materialize.
But there was still work to do, as two dozen high-priority fires, which could damage houses, continued to burn in the Interior. One of those, the massive 400 square km Hanceville fire, was descending upon the Anaham Lake reserve.
The residents there chose not to evacuate, deciding instead to remain and fight the flames. That had officials like Rustad, the forestry minister, worried.
"A lot of my time over the last few days has been in discussions on how do you plan for Anaham Lake, where you have 200 or 300 people who've decided to stay behind and fight for their community -- with the fire that in a very short time could sweep over that community," he said.
Preparations include making sure military helicopters are available for evacuation, and figuring out the legalities of trying to warn those who stay that they are putting their lives at risk, Rustad said.
Although Rustad and Stone are Liberal cabinet minsters with only days left on the job, they've been briefing incoming NDP premier John Horgan, who has also been touring the areas hard-hit by the fires. Both the NDP and Liberals say they have put aside their political differences to focus on the wildfire crisis.
Thursday: Hinderers and helpers
Besides fighting fires and feeding evacuees, officials have also been busy this week stopping looters. On Thursday, the RCMP said it arrested two people after seizing a television and other items stolen from evacuated houses near Williams Lake. Police also arrested three people with break-in tools caught inside the evacuation zone near 100 Mile House.
"You get pretty choked, I'll tell you that. People taking advantage of others in their most vulnerable time. The RCMP have been phenomenally quick. They were nailing them," said Campsall, mayor of 100 Mile House.
But, mostly, people have been quick to lend a helping hand to the 16,680 wildfire evacuees.
"The resilience of people comes through, the compassion of people comes through. People will step up and help each other," said Robert Turner, assistant deputy manager of Emergency Management B.C.
For example, he said, residents have been offering to billet evacuees or let them stay in their RVs, have donated food and water at reception centres, or have opened their stables and pastures to homeless livestock.
Friday: Don't let your guard down
Turner, a 30-year veteran of emergency planning, said Interior residents should get their homes and themselves ready to endure a smoky and potentially flammable summer.
"People will get frustrated because this will go on for a while. This is only July. This is traditionally the start of our fire season. Our planning assumption is that we will be in a response mode for another 60 days and the situation could get worse before it gets better," Turner said.
"We are in for a long hot summer, so everyone in the province needs to be prepared."
Impatience is high among some people, prompting the wildfire service to issue pleas for residents to not disobey evacuation orders.
Zigler understands the frustrations. He only knows his house on Spokin Lake Road is still standing, thanks to reports from friends in water-bombing planes who have flown over his property. There is little information available to evacuees about the fate of their properties, he said Friday. He estimated 5,000 people were at the Prince George emergency reception centre looking for help and answers.
Zigler has now moved his travel trailer from the Williams Lake stampede grounds to his friend's house in Prince George, where his family of five is waiting. Waiting to go back home. Waiting to go back to work and back to their regular lives.
"I feel my family is safe and I'm confident my house is going to make it, but nobody knows when we are going to get back," he said.
The weather has cooperated since Wednesday, dropping the number of burning fires to 167 as of Friday, with 3,000 different types of workers and 200 aircraft attacking the blazes.
The next few days, though, are expected to remain hot and dry. And the wildfire service is worried about the forecast for Saturday: the possibility of more lighting and heavy winds, gusting as strong as 70 km/hour in some areas, according to an Environment Canada alert.
"That level of wind certainly has the prospect to whip up fire behaviour," said Kevin Skrepnek, chief information officer for the wildfire service. "That is a concern."
For the past eight days, Wilson and her family have lived in a hotel in Merritt since fire chased them off the Ashcroft reserve. That fire remains one of the largest at 115 square km. Crews have done a controlled burn around the reserve to try to stop the flames from approaching it again, but there is still no word on when residents can return.
"I'm doing all right. I kind of just want to go back home, but you can't yet," Wilson, the mother of 10-year-old twin boys, said Friday.
Back in 100 Mile House, Mayor Campsall is dreaming of welcoming back the residents of his community, but not until the 50 square km Gustafsen blaze is finally under control.
"Pray. Pray for us. We're not out of the woods yet," he said.