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APRIL 2018 • COUNTRY LIFE IN BC Making the right call in a horrible situation


As wildfire drew near, the Holmes family stuck together to protect their ranch at Empire Valley by MYRNA STARK LEADER


Late start


WILLIAMS LAKE – Joyce and John Holmes and their children, Ellen, 16, Hattie, 13, and Sam, 10, were not burned out in last summer’s worst fire season in BC history but they were impacted. Like others, their fire story is still being written as they try to address challenges resulting from a major disaster in the community and what it means for their own ranch. The Holmes have ranched


for 20 years due west of 100 Mile House at Empire Valley Ranch. Joyce grew up on a ranch west of Empire Valley. Her husband grew up in Merritt and previously worked at the Gang Ranch, a few kilometres away. At its closest, the fires were about 25 kilometres from Empire Valley, where the Holmes have 500 head of cattle and 20 horses. They lease the historic ranch, owned by BC Parks, with cattle on range in spring, summer and fall. On the other hand, fire was


just two kilometres away from the private property they own at Big Creek, about 100 kilometres northwest of Empire Valley, where they summer graze another 100 cow-calf pairs. “I didn’t see it come down the mountain like some friends of mine but the main thing I felt was guilty. We were so affected but unaffected,” recalls Joyce Holmes.


Spring 2017 was later and cooler than most years, but with no rain in May and June, typically the wet season. “When the fires started, we understood that it was dry because we were dry. But, at first, we didn’t know that as Empire Valley is known for dry, hot summers. I was haying while my husband was fighting fire in Big Creek. It was blue skies here at Empire and you’d never have known anything was going on. Then, the Elephant Hill fire started, which covered us with smoke, and then the rest of the summer was just straight smoke.” From her house, you can


typically look over the hay fields and see three miles across the valley to the mountains on the other side but last summer visibility was less than 200 yards for the six weeks they lived under an evacuation order. The evacuation order for


Empire Valley came while the family was away visiting relatives who were unable to visit them because of fire- related road closures. “We just got into cell


service when the phone rang saying the police and army were in our yard and put us on evacuation order. It was August 4. What could you do but turn around and come home because we didn’t want the roadblocks to go up before we made it home with our kids. There was no way I was letting our kids stay out


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Joyce Holmes, left, with children Ellen, Hattie and Sam, and dog Patch, riding the range – smoke-free – at Empire Valley Ranch. SUBMITTED PHOTO


with someone else and be separated because who knew how long it would be.” Holmes says she didn’t consider groceries or anything else. They needed to get home.


When they arrived at


Empire, their hired hand had already left so she was glad they returned as there were pets locked in the porch. “Fortunately, we always


have a freezer full of meat and a garden and root cellar full of canned stuff ... We made do,” she says. With many highways


closed, they immediately applied for travel permits knowing if their irrigation


system broke they would have been out of luck in keeping the hayfields around them green. They irrigate 250 acres on the plateaus which Joyce says would have become their refuge if they were in danger. This wasn’t their first fire experience, afterall, with lightning strikes and forestry backburns not uncommon. Like many rural places, Big


Creek is a community, so her husband was helping fight fires there using their home- made (but licensed) water truck, since the forestry department hadn’t yet arrived. He was also there in case they had to arrange a


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move for their cattle. “He was a volunteer but


when forestry got there, they told him that he couldn’t use his water truck to help because it was not licensed with them and he wasn’t licensed to fight fire with them.”


Ready to leave


John ended up leaving the water truck with a neighbour because the fire was at their back door, and came home to help with haying. They lived as best they could in the smoke, creating another makeshift water trailer to


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