Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb became one of the most notable characters thrust into the spotlight as the 2017 wildfires unfolded.
One year later, he describes the historic summer where fires burned out-of-control around the city for two months as “a blur” and says he still, like many residents, has anxiety around the issue of fires.
“I still have [anxiety], and I can imagine there are a lot of people who have more anxiety issues than I do. Just Tuesday night for example we were at a committee of the whole council meeting when we heard the thunder and the whole city hall just went silent. So, ya, there’s still a lot of anxiety out there. Every time there’s lightning, a fire, people are [saying] ‘what’s going on, what’s going on, can you give me an update’.”
Through the Tribune’s Facebook live videos, which garnered a half million views at the time, as well as media coverage from across the country and beyond, Cobb tried to give lakecity residents the information they were needing and craving as much as possible.
“My phone is open to anybody,” he said of receiving non-stop calls for information and interviews.
“My cell phone number is on my business cards.”
The attention made Cobb very well-known during the fires and even now.
“A lot of people know me, it doesn’t seem to matter where I go and they look an they go ‘ya I remember you [from the wildfire coverage].’”
With all that attention focused on the fires and the city, came a lot of good for Williams Lake too.
“Some of it was good news. It was positive. It’s brought a lot of notoriety to Williams Lake which is positive.”
Cobb said many events have been held in the city over the past year, such as barrel racing and Rogers Hometown Hockey.
There’s also been good-news announcements, like the $125 million hospital upgrade which was always in the planning process but perhaps spurred on by the wildfire attention.
“There were a lot of politicians that came through [during the fires], and I think they saw the hospital [project] and realized there was a need here. We service such a large area.”
Cobb said the fires also left a positive impression with many of the thousands of people who came to help during the fires.
“Our new fire chief is one of them. He was in town and fell in love with the place.”
As we all know, most of the wildfires in the area were started July 7 when a storm swept through the region, bringing with it dry lightning.
Cobb had to try to keep his citizens calm and maintain some sense of order while also helping to make some tough decisions — like if and when to evacuate.
That order came down late in the afternoon July 15 during the second major firestorm, when the White Lake Fire jumped the Fraser River and roared across Soda Creek Road.
Homes were lost in that area and also later that evening at Miocene.
Cobb said the story that kept playing in his head when helping make the decision to evacuate was of a community that waited too long and motorists perished fleeing the fire.
“We didn’t want to take that chance. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said, noting the evacuation was one of the largest in B.C. history, involving more than 25,000 people.
“If it had come up the valley like they anticipated we would have probably got out in time but we would have lost a big part of our town.”
Cobb said the various levels of government have worked together throughout the winter to ensure the city is prepared if another emergency such as the 2017 wildfires come along.
“There has been a lot of work done with the fire centre, the regional district, the hospital — all these service providers so that we have a better communication strategy if, and we hope this never happens again, we definitely have key people identified. We’ve even worked with the industry people because the mills just can’t shut down in a minute.”
Having a second access to the west side of the city has also been identified as a top priority in case of an emergency.
“We’ve started the process now to move forward with the second crossing [over the river valley] from the Westridge area. The fires have bought this more to light. We definitely have to start pushing for a second crossing. It’s going to have to be a bridge.”
Probably the most difficult result of the 2017 wildfires, and one that still gets the mayor choked up, was the residents who never came back after evacuation.
“I think the most negative thing that is still impacting our community is that people just didn’t come home, for one reason or another. They choose not to come home and that’s a hard thing to take. This was their home, and to feel that bad [because of the fires] that they would no longer call it their home that’s upsetting and I hope the people that feel that way can recover and eventually come home.”
Cobb said work has begun in the community forest to protect the city from fires, but he believes more still needs to be done, particularly when it comes to helping residents with lots of trees to fire-smart their properties.
“We have to put more pressure on the government to get more done,” noting, however, he feels government just might be listening.
“It’s getting everybody together on the same page and I guess that’s going to be the good news coming out of this disaster last year is that it’s created enough attention that we’ve got both levels of government listening and we’ve got them working together to solve some of these issues.”
Of course, perhaps the greatest thing that came out of the 2017 wildfires, in Cobb’s opinion, is that Williams Lake gained a deeper sense of community.
“The fires brought a lot of people together. It has been unbelievable. People got together during the fires, got to know each other and became friends. It has made our community stronger and not just the city, the surrounding area. We are not an island, we are a larger community and it’s brought a lot of people together.”