The fatigue in Alycia Butler’s voice is evident.
The North Shuswap realtor is calling from the Lower Mainland from the fourth place she and her partner, Dave, and eight-year-old son Hemingway have been staying since losing their family home in the Bush Creek East wildfire on Aug. 18. Their two dogs have been in three kennels.
“All I’ve done is make arrangements for ourselves, cancel services like Hydro etc., and reach out to all my real estate clients who just bought out my way or have a deal in play,” said Butler. “It has been an exhausting and emotional time. I feel like I’ve been in a robot mode to get as much done as possible, while trying to grieve in between things.”
Late in the morning of Aug. 18, a Friday, Butler went to Scotch Creek to pick up an inhaler. The wind that day, she said, was gusting 30-to-40 kilometres/hour, maybe more. She saw an entire hillside already on fire. That’s when she called Dave and told him to pack their vehicles. They were leaving regardless of any evacuation orders or alerts being issued.
“We were getting the f—k out,” said Butler.
The family was fleeing to Salmon Arm. Butler snapped pictures on her cell phone along the way. A photo she took at 12:20 p.m. showed the flames on the hillside moving in toward the community, and that’s when she knew there was going to be trouble.
“It’s an eight-minute drive to my house from here and that hillside is very hard terrain to get to,” said Butler. “Water bombers tried to stop it by air, but the winds – the wind was so big at this time of day, there was no stopping it.
“The lake (Shuswap) had two-to-three-foot swells to give you a sense of how windy it was. Whitecaps were everywhere. The sky changed quickly even just in my eight-minute drive home. It looked so apocalyptic. I had to turn my lights on as it got so dark, so quickly from all the smoke. I could barely breathe without coughing when I got home.”
At 1:24 p.m., according to a photo time stamp, Butler is heading over the single-lane bridge in Scotch Creek with the fire nearby, threatening the bridge which, Butler, said, was closed an hour after they crossed. Fire crews were hosing down the bridge to allow as many people as possible to flee the area.
Butler said many people couldn’t get out that way and had to head to Seymour Arm as the bridge was closed and the fire was rapidly spreading.
At 1:29 p.m., a video clip taken on the other side of the bridge shows traffic stopped just before Holding Road where fire suppression equipment was being relaunched and moved. Butler and family were only stopped for five minutes, she said, but the train of vehicles behind them got stuck to the bridge.
“It must have been terrifying for those behind us,” said Butler, who pondered the fact she and her family never received an alert for her region.
“At 4:13 p.m., we finally received an evacuation order, three hours after we had fled,” said Butler. “It was ridiculous.”
Just after 5 p.m., Butler snapped a couple of photos of the Salmon Arm sky, engulfed by wildfire smoke.
A firefighter friend battling the blaze took pictures for Butler showing her Disdero Road home – which she had only moved into in 2020 after helping evacuees of the White Rock Lake fire – was gone, devoured by the fire. Her home had been flanked by forest to the north and west side of her Celista home. Most of the forest, she said, is cedar, spruce and pine trees. Everything got eaten up by the Bush Creek East fire, confirmed by the firefighter’s photos.
Two of her girlfriends lost their homes on Tallington Road.
“We are safe with our son and two dogs, with our grab bags as our only possessions. The road to rebuilding will be a long and difficult road, but we have our lives which is what matters most,” said Butler, prior to returning the area on the Labour Day long weekend.
“It’s going to be emotional coming back and seeing the destruction again. It sucks. What I miss most is having a place to call home.”
North Shuswap Elementary School survived the fire, so Hemingway and other students of the Kindergarten to Grade 8 facility can get back to some sense of normalcy. Butler and family have found accommodation. The start of school, however, will be delayed by about a week.
Then will come the process of rebuilding. Not just their home, said Butler, but the community. Putting on her realtor’s hat, Butler said there will be difficult times ahead.
“Sales will be at a standstill for obvious reasons. No one can enter as it’s too dangerous to do so. With evacuation orders still in place, there won’t be showings or inspections of any kind, which means no new sales to speak of,” she said. “For those poor people who did buy already and are about to have their closing date take place, they will be homeless as they won’t be allowed to enter.
“On top of that all the powerlines will need rebuilding. There is no running water. Where I live in Celista is on a mountain. There will be severe geotechnical concerns as the trees were burned to a crisp. Their root systems may be compromised so geotechnical surveys will need to be completed which will cost us thousands. The entirety of the North Shuswap is on septic systems, so environmental assessments will need to be done. All this before we can even know if we can excavate the land.”
Despite the uncertainty, the grieving, the travelling, Butler and her family have been grateful for all the support they and the North Shuswap have received. Her friends from back east have been calling, offering help.
“It’s been overwhelming, incredibly humbling,” she said.