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Francois Lake area residents feel 'ignored, abandoned'

The area south of Francois Lake is a rarity in the region. It's reputed to be one of the most beautiful corners of the earth. It is isolated by virtue of being sandwiched between big Francois Lake and simply enormous Ootsa Lake.
The Shovel Lake fire, the largest wildfire in the province, is seen from the air in an undated handout photo from the B.C. Wildfire Service. Some residents of the Francois Lake area feel they’ve been overlooked by the province, as resources are concentrated on higher-profile fires.

The area south of Francois Lake is a rarity in the region.

It's reputed to be one of the most beautiful corners of the earth. It is isolated by virtue of being sandwiched between big Francois Lake and simply enormous Ootsa Lake. Dirt resource roads can get you in and out if you know where you're going, either towards Houston on the western end or Fraser Lake to the east. The main mode of connection is the ferry that links the civilization of Highway 35 with the rural self-reliance of Keefe's Landing Road and the rest of the area called The Southside.

That ferry is now a bottleneck resented by Southside residents and their supporters. A cluster of fires (five main ones and other smaller ones) has the entire Southside neighbourhood on evacuation order. No one is being allowed across the ferry to bring equipment, supplies, help of any kind to those under seige. Anyone who leaves their home is thereafter blocked from returning.

Some are questioning the legality of the government's blockade. Some are buffaloing or sweet-talking their way past the checkpoints. Others are hiring small boats to chauffeur them secretly across the lake.

For that reason and more, Southside residents held a public meeting and have been setting a fire of their own on social media about how their unique neighbourhood has been let down. Some are going so far as to say, government inaction when the fires were small has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in lost timber, agriculture land, tourism, small business, and even some homes. At least two houses are confirmed to be razed by the fires, plus shops and barns that are often worth more to a rural resident than the house itself.

"The unfortunate aspect is, at this point in time, it is all coming out as anger because of the fear everyone is feeling and seeing all the breakdowns in the system going on in front of us," said Ris Johansen, co-proproprietor of the Takysie Lake Resort, a store, fuel station, cafe and collection of cabins by a lovely mid-sized lake in the heart of the Southside.

The BC Wildfire Service has been using the resort as a respite and staging area, and the effort has ramped up dramatically in the past week as the fires have become huge and volatile.

It leaves many openly lamenting at the store that a substantial effort in the first place would have cost the taxpayer a lot less and saved the local landscape a generational catastrophe.

"You feel ignored, some people feel abandoned, and people don't have time to sit down to make rational decisions anymore. For a lot of Southsiders, they feel no choice but to take a stand - them against the flames," Johansen said.

The three First Nations of the Southside have been living on that land over eons. Although the first white person born there only passed away a few years ago, there has been colonial contact there dating back to the 19th century. Some of the farms and ranches on the Southside have been passed down for five generations. Such operations are built on the experiences of those past operators. They can't be simply relocated, because the institution is largely in the knowledge of the land and the tools acquired specifically for that land's use.

One such location is Cougar Ranch, where filmmaker Joe Tschanz was raised. It's where he set his feature-length movie Neutral Territory, and the landscape plays a large part of the cinematography. He explained that a fire burns a house, it burns a shop, but when it burns a farm the destruction goes so deep it affects overall society.

"Most of the community is self-employed and virtually self sufficient," Tschanz said.

"The farms that they own are large, and all of their savings and livelihoods are in the properties, their equipment, storage and livestock. Some of these people own up to 1,000 head of cattle. Fire insurance has always been unaffordable and 90 per cent of the people don't have it. If they can't save what they own, they will have nothing - no future, no retirement. They aren't fighting for buildings but for their livelihoods, homes, and identity. They are fighting against growing old in poverty."

Mike Robertson and his family have dreamed of growing old on their Southside ranch near Molice Lake, and passing it on to more hands that will work it with the primal love of the outdoors and the circle of life philosophy they did. He is a singer-songwriter, so this crisis is sure to wind up in future ballads, but right now he is parked on the north side, at Tchesinkut Lake's beautiful Beaver Point, helpless to even know if the fire has reached his ranch's borders. Did his fire guard hold?

"It looks pretty grim. This is a monster with an appetite for anything it can touch, no conscience, and it goes where it wants," he said. "We don't have any towns. We have communities and we have ranches built to be operational and self-sufficient over generations. Can you just image the people who've been here decade after decade, and all the kids who they've been building it all for. You know, they've taken 10,000 head of livestock out of that country since the fires got bad, and nobody's got a company credit card for that. It's all on their own, just for love of neighbours."

Far too many cattle liners have had to talk their way past checkpoints to go get another and another and another load of cows and horses. Robertson is furious about the authoritarianism of it.

"They are forcing people to break the law (by sneaking help in) and that ain't right," he said. "These people are private citizens but they are consenting adults, they know what they're doing, and they are providing a public service no different than what the police and firefighters are doing."

If it weren't for private citizens, some of the main fire suppression exercises wouldn't have been done at all, Robertson said. He and others in his circle carried out their own fireguard construction near Ootsa Lake Bible Camp, using their own heavy equipment, to ward off the walls of flame.

The Cheslasli Fire is listed as one of B.C.'s Fires of Note by the BC Wildfire Service, yet no BCWS personnel has touched that one. But ad hoc crews of loggers and farmers and First Nations have been trying to corral it with fireguard. It is timberland that has no human structures in the fray, but it is the logging income of the future for innumerable people.

Johansen said the stories are pouring in at the resort of neighbours already fending off fires by banding together to protect houses and barns. In two cases she knows of, the houses were lost. More, though, were successfully saved by the neighbour brigades.

She stressed that the actual firefighters have been heroic. They are skilled and they are exhaustive in their efforts. There are simply too few of them, they were deployed far too late, and then they also have orders to follow like sleeping in Burns Lake at night and arriving each morning having wasted precious time in transit, when they could just sleep on the Southside.

Dana Glanville, another generational Francois Lake resident, helped compose a written response to government following the public meeting at the Grassy Plains Hall on Monday evening. The letter explained that most of these Southside residents were experienced and capable with the tools and practices of forest firefighting, and blocking aid at the ferry landing was just another insult added to the late response.

"These are not inexperienced individuals making some sort of romantic last stand," Glanville said. "These people are literally fighting for their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods because the province has made it clear they either cannot or will not help. Instead, (residents) have been ordered to evacuate and have chosen to use their legal right to do for themselves what has been up until today the responsibility of the Forest Resource Management branch of the government."

The letter outlined a chronology of the ups and downs of the firefighting efforts.

Johansen concurred that miscommunications, misleading directives, conflicting policies and just evidently bad management made this complex of fires, well, more complex.

"Watching them give the orders, then change them, then miss the obvious, then stumble around with crossed-up facts, you'd think, as someone just observing all this, that they've never done any of this before, and how many years has this been going on? I thought the B.C. government knew how to fight forest fires."

Premier John Horgan was in the area on Tuesday to tour some of the fire sites. He was asked about the Southside's citizen efforts, and he expressed concern about the safety of anyone who stayed behind or went in to help against the evacuation order.

"I have to get further advice on that from officials before I react, but I would say that those who choose to ignore evacuation orders put themselves at risk, they put firefighters at risk, they put their communities at risk," he said. "These decisions are not made lightly, they're not personal, they're not made for any other reason than the people that are charged in British Columbia with keeping the public safe and managing wildfires make these determinations in the public interest. For those that are choosing to stay, they are putting themselves at risk and they are compromising our ability to address the fires."

Statement issued by the B.C. Wildfire Service

Fire officials are concerned about the inherent safety risk to those individuals refusing to abide by the evacuation orders for the Nadina and Verdun fires on the south side of Francois Lake given the weather forecast for the next 72 hours. Fire growth is anticipated as well as extreme fire behaviour.

Being placed on an evacuation order or engaging in fire suppression operations independently, can be a difficult and emotional experience; however, choosing to remain in an area under evacuation order puts yourself, your family, and potentially first responders in danger.

The protection of first responders and the public is the number one priority for B.C. Wildfire Service, which includes ensuring the safety of our own personnel. If you have chosen to remain in your home in the event of an evacuation order, it is important to understand that we may not be able to assist you, as you have been advised to leave the area for your own safety and we need to ensure the health and safety of our firefighters as well.

Remaining in an area under an evacuation order can also impede our ability to fight the fire, as we may be forced to stop certain suppression activity to not put people who have stayed behind in further danger. It is important to understand that access will not be granted to an active fire area if an evacuation order has been put in place.

-- B.C. Wildfire Service statement