More Than a House: Losing our Home to the Bush Creek East Wildfire
Unceded Secwepemc Territory — 2023 was the worst wildfire season recorded in so-called B.C.'s history. According to B.C. Wildfire Service, record-breaking warm temperatures and drought conditions from as far back as October 2022 set the stage for it, while an unusually high number of lightning storms started many of the fires in July, with cold and powerful winds in August fanning them.
Over 2,255 wildfires burned 2.84 million hectares of forest and land, and over 200 evacuation orders were issued, impacting 48,000 people. For 28 days, B.C. was under a provincial state of emergency. In September 2023, in Kamloops, B.C., Premier David Eby stated that until then, 400 buildings, mainly homes, had been destroyed by the wildfires.
The Bush Creek Wildfire and the Lower East Adams Lake Wildfire were discovered on July 12, 2023, and eventually merged, ultimately burning 45,613 hectares of land. The Columbia Shuswap Regional District states that wildfire destroyed 176 homes plus 85 structures (homes and buildings) on Skwlāx teSecwepemcúl̓ecw, commonly known as Squilax Reserve.
spi7uwie scalemc is a musician, and Honey Williams is an Indigenous Studies teacher who has taught from K5 to university, and moved to Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw 10 years ago. They built their home mainly with recycled materials, and they had a greywater system, where the water used from the house is caught and reused in other areas, such as in a garden or orchard. They'd host ceremonies and were able to have large numbers of visitors. Their house was on spi7uwe's hereditary land, and their neighbours are family.
But on Friday, August 18, 2023, all their possessions burned: their home, cabins, truck, boat, tipi, and orchards.
The following is a direct account from spi7uwe and Honey (italicized) about what occurred during those tragic days.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
spi7uwie: We were given the order to leave, and there was no warning. We were coming from a wedding, where we had been on Salt Spring Island. Within an hour and a half of the order, we got there, and everything was gone.
Honey: We got the evacuation alert on the phone, and my daughter Andriana had gotten a ride home from work, which is also at Skwylax. She said birds were falling out of the sky, dead. She is the hero. She had 40 minutes to evacuate and spent that time finding our animals [pets]. She got three, and there were two missing, but she had to leave (Since the interview, all remaining pets have been located.) We reached the pullout by Boat World [across the river]. We could see where our home was. There was an explosion, and we knew it was from (our) diesel truck. We weren't able to get anything out.
spi7uwie: The land my house was on has been in my family for quite a few generations — before that, as far back as people can remember. Most recently, [it] was gifted to me by my mother and my brother, and I built a home out there. He was living there, then I realized I had the land, and I moved out there and began to build, working on it whenever I could get cash or decent material from trade. We built it with our own blood, sweat, and tears.
When Honey moved out there nine years ago, my brother and I started building the house but hadn't finished. He tragically passed on, and then when Honey came to stay with me, we finished it together. It was ALMOST done, just the way we wanted it. … In the reno process, we put everything we had into it, from laughter, songs, prayers and dreams and wishes to blood, sweat and tears. We worked together really well and accommodated each other in the process as best we could. Our home was part of our love story.
The siding was not done, yet and we were redoing our deck this summer. The upstairs was a loft that we called the Eagle's Nest — it was like a magical treehouse surrounded by the enchanting forest. Then Honey and I worked our little buns off, using any money we got or [making] trades. Friends would bring stuff over and help out, or drop material, or do a trade.
Honey: We married each other on our land, at our home. It was a very special place. In our gardens, we had squash beds, beans, so many berries, all the herbs, all the greens. It was lush. Every year I planted flowers for my birthday. For our wedding, instead of buying flowers, we planted them and they came up at the right time for our ceremony. We had planted over 50 different fruit trees that were starting to bear fruit. We had grape vineyards. We had a piece of paradise. We did our best to take care of our own food and have enough to share. We gathered meat from almost our backyard — our hunting grounds burned too. We smoked and processed our meat, pickled and dehydrated and preserved. We spent our time with the land and each other on the land.
We were building a sauna. We lost enough pieces of tongue and groove cedar to build a sauna and a deck. We were getting a hot tub running, and the cold plunge was a converted freezer. We had two fully functional guest cabins, a camper, a pond, tipi grounds, a workshop/garage, and a covered workshop space. We lost a boat and an awesome Chevy truck that we hadn't put insurance on because it is our hunting truck, so it was out of season. We were about to move my mom in and had just bought $400 worth of paint the day before [the fire] to spruce up the kitchen and camper.
The floors in our home were hardwood maple from a recycled handball court. We, with the help of friends, loaded it twice, ground the nails off, moved it again, installed half one year (when we raised our roof to open up the upstairs), then the other half the next year. Then we refinished it, and it looked amazing. It was a love nest. I am tall, and spi7uwe raised the sinks and counters so I would be most comfortable in the kitchen. We had tipi grounds, and hundreds of people came to pray with us throughout the years. We hunted and shared what we caught. We lost rifles. We gardened and grafted, seeded mycelium, and were doing our best to be as close to land as we could. We had a grove of endangered yew trees by home that were burned.
My daughter thought she grabbed the luggage with our photos in it, but I had already put them on the shelf. The pictures and her baby videos are one of the hardest losses.
We hope to rebuild, we hope everyone that does rebuild will look into options like straw bale or rammed earth. There are lots of better options for beautiful homes that are safer and smarter than conventional stick frame and drywall homes. This is an opportunity for an upgrade for everyone. Eco-friendly and fire resistant materials so nobody needs to see their home burn again.
Environmental factors leading to forest fires
Due to drought brought on by excessive logging, overutilization of water by agriculture and mining projects, and global warming, the forests in the southern interior of B.C. are like dry tinder.
Historically, B.C. criminalized the Indigenous practice of burning the forests to clear the build-up of dry litter and dead brush and maintain the health and well-being of the ecosystems.
The B.C. government has neglected forest health and created an environment vulnerable to forest fires that reach incredibly high temperatures and are hard to control. That's something both spi7uwie and Honey know all about.
Honey: When they clearcut, instead of selectively logging, it takes all undergrowth and damage or destroy the mycelial network, and this causes erosion and floods. Trees hold carbon, their roots and the networks underground hold water and so much magic. We see so many logging trucks leave Adams Lake everyday. There are ways to manage a forest that still leaves trees and the forest networks intact. We want our generations to be able to feel safe and know old-growth forests. There needs to be a systemic change in the way to look at the trees, plants, and water. We are in a codependent relationship with the land and yet act as though we are not.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project impacts on the land
In regards to climate change or projects like the Trans Mountain Pipeline project, which is taking place through many territories, including the Secwepemc territory, spi7uwe says there is no ambiguity when it comes to the importance of the land.
spi7uwie: Nothing, no human being, is better than Mother Earth. We are at the mercy of Mother Earth and the Great Spirit. Humans are always playing god. Eventually, something's going to shake. There are prophecies that talk about these times. Keep an open mind and heart to these times — as hard as it is for family. What did I pray for? What did we pray for? Cleansing, healing, health.
Historically, we used to control-burn our berry patches — blueberries, huckleberries. We had to burn to make it lush and beautiful for the years to come. That wasn't upheld: now we have six feet of pine needles in the forest. Now, all it takes is lightning, a cigarette butt, a match, or blow torch. If we burned every year or two, in select locations, you could try to set the forest on fire, but it wouldn't light up.
Honey: I think that anything that has the potential to disrupt clean water sources is a bad idea. Anything that risks the fish is a bad idea. I think that anything that disrupts habitats is not forward-thinking. TMX falls into this category. Water is life. We're talking about headwaters. Water needs to flow freely and cleanly, and it's not just for Indigenous people. It's for all people; it is life. And it's not just people; it's fish, birds, four-legged, mycelium, worms. Our medicines. Water is the master. Water is the chief. Water is life.
I have to have faith moving forward that Creator is going to transform us even more into what he wants us to be. That good things will come out of [the wildfire], that our community will come even closer. Fire transforms and refines. If you look at what it does with metal, it purifies.
Taking care of water is everyone's responsibility. Everyone was praying for rain. I'm trying to look forward. I want to see people live as close to the earth as possible; to be soil-building, bringing in nitrogen and mycelium.
spi7uwie: I want to extend my gratitude to everyone helping us, the donations, and praying. It's a stressful time for everyone. I have a special thought for our grandchildren. They don't know what's going on. They're coming to this world; they're happy and bringing us happiness. We have to manage our land and ourselves. When we're near 100 per cent, at our full capacity, then we can help manage our communities.
As a collective, we need to step out of the shadow of tyranny and oppression and move towards something more energetically friendly and spiritual towards each other. There needs to be more spiritual advancement where we're not fighting among each other.
Find something to smile at a couple of times a day. Even in the midst of utter chaos and war, have a thought of a joke your grandfather told you or something — that will to move forward and to persevere.