The residents of Riske Creek – population 90 – have been in the fight of their lives to save their rural community from one of the largest wildfires still burning out of control in B.C.
“I just want this nightmare to be over,” said rancher and lifelong Riske Creek resident, Raylene Poffenroth.
“This fire is scary, so scary. You just don’t know what it’s going to do.”
Raylene and her husband Bryan own the Beacher Ranch, located at the corner of Highway 20 and Farwell Canyon Road. But Raylene has family ties to the entire community, with her brother Fred Ilnicki living at the Ilnicki Ranch further west and her mom and dad, Tommy and Donna-Rae Ilnicki and her other brother Kenny and Debbie Ilnicki beyond that at the River Ranch.
Between her family, and all the friends and neighbours of Riske Creek, the locals have been joining forces to battle the aggressive wildfire, now an estimated 98,000 hectares, day and night for a week-and-a-half since the fire broke out Friday, July 7.
“That was one hell of a night,” Raylene said of July 7, when helicopter pilot Lee Todd of Eldorado Log Hauling first warned that a fire was approaching the Ilnicki Ranch. Having just got in from work, the men rushed to their heavy equipment to build 100-foot wide fire guards around the ranch. The guard proved no match for the aggressive fire, however, and jumped it and tried to take the main house.
“Then it was time to fight,” she said, describing how the fire burned right to the house. “At one point the boys had to back off and say that was all they could do.”
The men, consisting of Bryan Poffenroth, Evan fuller and Raylene’s nephews Tyler, Justin and Kory with their crew all managed to save the Ilnicki house that first night.
“After that night we basically had two crews going — the Ilnicki crew guarding their end of the fire, the rest of the locals along with the Hytest Timber crew went on to protect and guard homes with Lee Todd communicating with everyone.”
Between all the locals, Riske Creek residents went on to save at least ten more homes in the Riske Creek area, including Shelley and Hugh Loring’s home which they fought for day and night, and Mike and Connie Jasper’s home.
Being further east from the fire, Raylene and Bryan’s house served as a refuge for much of the community, who gathered at the home to rest, eat and sleep. And while the men fought the fires, Raylene and other neighbouring wives cooked meals and brought them out to their fire fighting husbands and looked after the kids.
Raylene said probably the worst day so far wasn’t the fire itself, but was when government officials enforced an evacuation order, forcing the women with children to leave, separating the ranching families.
“The men came back from fighting fire to say good-bye and everyone was crying,” she said. “That was probably the worst moment. It was terrible.”
By Tuesday the 11th, the government arrived at Riske Creek to take over the local’s ongoing fire fighting efforts. But, by Saturday, July 15, the fire had grown in size and strength and became extremely volatile when high winds fanned the flames.
“It came through Risk Creek (again) and was the scariest it’s ever been,” she said. “It moved five kilometres in a couple hours.”
Raylene said once the evacuation order came down in Williams Lake Saturday, the BC Wildfire Service pulled crews from the Hanceville-Riske Creek fire.
“They pulled everyone out.”
The fire ripped through the forest at the Riske Creek transfer station, across Highway 20 and into the business of Chilcotin Towing, where it burned several impounded vehicles and a smaller shop, but local firefighters who all remained committed to fighting the fire managed to save the larger shop and house.
“They were able to hold it off,” Raylene said of the Riske Creek residents battling the blaze without support from the BC Wildfire Services crews.
“If it weren’t for us, there wouldn’t be a Riske Creek left.”
On Monday, the community finally did lose one house to the fire owned by a family which was further back by a meadow.
The fire also traveled further east closer to town, toward Beacher Ranch where Raylene and Bryan had been bracing for it.
“We watched it crest the hill. It was shooting 200-foot flames into the air,” she said of the fire, bearing down toward the ranch Sunday afternoon. “But we were prepared for it. We were ready. We had 2,000 feet of water hose hooked up to the irrigation pump. We were waiting for it.”
The Poffenroths gathered all their machinery, equipment, trucks and trailers and moved them to the centre of their hay field for safety and went out to meet the fire on the west side of Farwell Canyon Road.
“It was looking like it was going to cross the (Farwell Canyon) road,” she said.
Beyond the Farwell Canyon road east lies Beacher Ranch, Toosey Reserve, the Fraser River and eventually, Williams Lake.
Finally at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, while fighting the fire, the Poffenroths said they received air support from the BC Wildfire Service with three helicopters bucketing the blaze until night time.
“Bryan and I both slept on the front porch and watched it that night.”
Raylene said the fire also crossed the road at Highway 20 and Farwell Canyon road to the north and tried to take the Chilcotin Lodge but was, again, stopped by residents. The fire has also burned the military reserve and all the way to the Loran-C tower location so far.
“It was all locals fighting it,” she said, adding they were also grateful for the assistance of Corey Dyck of Hytest Timber. “I don’t understand why the military isn’t here helping.”
Raylene said she doesn’t believe the fire threat will be over any time soon in the Chilcotin, which has already been decimated by the fires.
“It is devastating, just so devastating,” she said. “There is no grass left for the cattle. We are probably going to have to sell cows. We won’t be able to afford to keep them (and feed them all fall and winter.)”
Due to the sheer size of the fires out west, Raylene believes most Chilcotin ranchers will be impacted by the 2017 wildfires, as will the loggers who rely on the forests for work.
But she does take comfort knowing that the homes of her family, friends and neighbours have largely been saved so far.
“We’ve been a community a long time. We have a close group of people here. I went to school here and I’ve known most of these people my whole life,” Raylene said of why they fought so hard to save it.
“It’s where we live and we didn’t want to see it gone.”
She also knows, though, that it is far from over.
“We are just waiting, waiting for something to happen,” she said. “There are too many hot spots to put this fire out.”
Editor’s note: While we were in conversation with Raylene Tuesday night (July 18), she had to stop working with us as another fire flared up behind the ranch house. In a text at midnight, she said they would be fighting fire again into the night as the fire continues to jump the guards.