Community members from throughout the region will have a platform to share their stories and lived experiences through the 2017 wildfires in a new exhibition at the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.
Opening Nov. 6, Cariboo Strong – Resiliency in the Face of the 2017 Wildfires aims to paint a picture of how the community banded together in the face of the devastating impacts of the historic wildfires, which forced an almost two-week evacuation of the city in July of 2017.
The exhibition will showcase a vast collection of submitted stories, photographs, videos and objects loaned to the museum by residents, businesses and first responders on how they were affected during the wildfires.
“I think the overall theme throughout is it’s something that connects and unites us,” said Casey Bennett, project assistant with the MCC who, along with fellow staff members, have been hard at work throughout the week setting up for the exhibition’s opening. “You’ll see sad stories, you’ll see uplifting stories. It’s really something everyone here [in the Cariboo] can relate to and it affected everybody.”
Alex Geris, MCC manager, said initial work on the project got underway in 2018 after receiving a grant from the Canadian Red Cross as part of the MCC’s relocation and restoration project.
Initial plans to have the Cariboo Strong exhibit open to the public earlier this year were dashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also presented its own challenges in coming up with ways to share and display the vast amount of information through submissions and interviews received from the community.
“It’s definitely been a difficult year to open an exhibit where we are hoping to engage the community, but it’s come together very nicely,” Geris said.
One museum wall will be entirely dedicated to photos and story excerpts submitted by residents. The museum’s website will further share those stories in their entirety in what will be a living, virtual exhibit. Submissions will also be collected throughout the exhibit’s run at the museum, which staff expects to stay open for at least a year.
“We’re hoping the online portion will provide a nice space for people to interact and have those shared experiences, as well as when they visit the museum,” Geris said.
Objects on display at the museum, to name a few, will include three logs donated by Pioneer Log Homes of B.C. bearing hundreds of signatures from emergency personnel who assisted during the wildfires in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and a bench built from reclaimed wood created by Bill James, including metal fabrication done by Monster Industries Ltd.
Nemiah Valley resident Jesaja Class also created a film titled Afterlight — entirely captured by drone depicting the devastating impacts of the wildfires in the Chilcotin — which will be viewable at the museum.
Due to its location at the Tourism Discovery Centre, the exhibit will also provide an opportunity to educate visitors from outside the community on the series of events that transpired during the summer of 2017.
Bennett and Geris both noted a lot of thought and time has gone into the project by many members of the community, and said they are extremely grateful to residents for sharing their stories with the museum.
“Without their stories and without their information this exhibit wouldn’t be possible,” Bennett said.
Geris also thanked the entire team at the MCC for its help, including MCC marketing and promotions co-ordinator Davana Mahon, artifact technician and professional museum conservator Raene Poisson, the MCC directors, former project assistant Nadia Erasmus and research assistant Rowan Paulsen.
“It’s been an entire team effort,” she said.
To help kick off the official Cariboo Strong exhibition opening, The Open Book will be on hand Nov. 6 from 11:30 to 1 p.m. selling signed copies of local author Claudia Cornwall’s new book: British Columbia in Flames. The museum has also teamed up with Cornwall for an online zoom event open to the public scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 12 where she will be joined by multiple guest speakers. Registration for the zoom event is available on the MCC’s Facebook page, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geris, meanwhile, who moved to Williams Lake in 2019 from Ontario to take on the role of museum manager, said working on the project has been critically important.
“I needed to hear those community voices share their own stories, and that’s been the really rewarding part of it, for me, is to learn about the community, the individuals and the group effort to help rebuild,” she said.
Bennett noted, for him, it’s been an insightful process, to revisit the summer of 2017.
“It’s been quite eye opening for me to hear what other people experienced during that time,” he said. “I’d only been back here in Williams Lake for two years and to come back and have something like that happen, it really shows you how a community can pull itself together and operate.”
Poisson, who arrived in Williams Lake from Saskatchewan during the summer to spearhead the MCC’s ongoing deaccessioning project, added the submissions in the exhibit have helped her empathize and connect with people.
“In my work I’m usually in the back, but this made me more aware of how I should prepare for and think about this type of disaster actually happening,” she said.
The MCC and the Cariboo Strong – Resiliency in the Face of the 2017 Wildfires exhibition will be open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To view the online exhibit visit www.cowboy-museum.com/cariboo-strong-exhibit/.