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


OPEN TO ALL RURAL LAND OWNERS  Community planning: how you can help your neighbour in a natural disaster  Creating maps of your ranch/farm with a takeaway gate post map of your operation  How to conduct yourself and the processes (such as permits) involved in a state of emergency  Tips on fuel load reduction  Access to the BC Ministry of Agricultures,s Emergency Management Guides for various commodities and small farms


Let us help you show the good things you already do for on-farm food safety, biosecurity, animal care and environmental stewardship.

1-866-398-2848 ext 2 |

Wednesday, April 4 Williams Lake 9am - Pioneer Complex 351 Hodgson Rd, Williams Lake (lunch, coffee) Wednesday, April 11 Cranbrook 9am - Heritage Inn Hotel 803 Cranbrook St N, Cranbrook (lunch, coffee) Thursday, April 12 Grand Forks 9am - Omega Restaurant 7400 BC-3, Grand Forks (lunch, coffee) Monday, April 16 OK Falls 9am - Okanagan Falls Legion 5009 Veterans Way, Okanagan Falls (lunch, coffee) Tuesday, April 17 Vernon 9am - Prestige Hotel 4411 32 St, Vernon (lunch, coffee) Wednesday, April 25 Comox 9am - The Westerly Hotel/Best Western 1590 Cliffe Ave., Courtenay (lunch, coffee)

These events are FREE, open to everyone, includes a meal and should be no longer than 3/4 of a day. Visit to register online or call 250.573.3611 Sponsored by

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