‘A new beginning’: First Nation ravaged by B.C. wildfire unveils new subdivision

Members of a First Nations community in southern British Columbia are marking a milestone as they work to rebuild from one of the province’s most devastating wildfires.

The Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw were one of several communities near Chase and Shuswap Lake devastated by the Bush Creek East fire in August 2023, which destroyed hundreds of homes.

“Everything was just roaring, explosions, embers falling and me and my brothers, we looked at each other and said this might be it,” Ku̓kpi7 (Chief) James Tomma recalled Wednesday of his narrow escape from the fire.

Click to play video: 'Skwla̓x te Secwe̓pemcu̓lecw chief describes dramatic escape from wildfire'

Skwla̓x te Secwe̓pemcu̓lecw chief describes dramatic escape from wildfire

“We turned around and looked and the whole countryside was going up. I can’t describe how I felt at that time.”

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Thirty-four of those homes, along with a band office, cemetery and businesses were in the Skwlāx community. Incredibly, no lives were lost.

Now, eight months later, the community has unveiled the first of four planned subdivisions to replace those homes.

The community held a ceremony Wednesday in honour of the new Dancing Fawn II subdivision, made up of 11 “rapid housing” homes.

“Ceremony is a very important part of our culture,” elder Rocky Tomma said.

“I understand it has taken eight or nine months for this to happen — as you know it takes eight or nine months for life to come into this world, so to me that’s how I look at it as a new beginning for our people.”

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Elder Wilfred Tomma was among the community members to be introduced to their new homes on Wednesday.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a blessing because I know I will have my people around me,” he said.

“Coming back to that community again, it will help me to realize that I am not the only one that lost anything out there from the fire, everybody else is feeling it.”

The rebuilding process is being spearheaded by Skwlāx Resource Management, a 100-per cent band-owned company that employs heavily from both the local and wider Indigenous communities.

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Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Skwlāx members coming to terms with loss'

B.C. wildfires: Skwlāx members coming to terms with loss

RJ John, a band member and electrical contractor, said the “nonstop grind” to rebuild had resulted in rapid progress.

“It’s really an honour and a privilege to work here in my backyard with all of these people to bring our community members back home,” he said.

In the wake of the fire, John said community members were widely dispersed in camps, short-term rentals and staying with friends.

“It was very scary, just being totally displaced with nowhere to go. It was really tough,” he said.

“Just from being a community totally ripped apart to now, it’s pretty emotional for sure.”

Cody Gaze, a heavy equipment operator and Adams Lake band member who lives in the Skwlāx community recalled the hectic fight to try and save homes during the August fire.

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“It’s kind of a blur, you know, because you are in the mix and you are fighting and you are just trying to save people’s homes and buildings.

“You don’t want to relive that day. And we are here today and we are rebuilding. so that is the good news … these homes got built within, I don’t know, three months?”

Click to play video: 'Documentary on Bush Creek Fire'

Documentary on Bush Creek Fire

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hadju said Wednesday that the federal government would be by the community’s side throughout the rebuild, supporting recovery and helping to build capacity and infrastructure.

But she acknowledged the loss members had suffered went beyond money and material things.

“Every home that is lost is memories, and family traditions and pets and a place to call home and safety and connection,” she said.  “And so we can’t put a number on that, it is hard to quantify that.”

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Ku̓kpi7 Tomma said the trauma of the fire has weighed heavily on him since it ripped through the community.

But he said the progress on the new housing has helped him regain hope after the disaster.

“Every night I would think what next. And I decided I better take a look at this new subdivision,” he said.

“I started smiling. A lot of weight lifted off … it was just seeing this, thanks to all the people … everybody working above and beyond.”

Tomma said the community is hoping to roll the other subdivisions out in the next several months.

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