When Lorne Smith and Cheryl Merriman retired to a house across from Pressy Lake this May, they thought they were opening a new chapter in their lives.
They had no way of knowing that that chapter would close swiftly, and that the whole book would go up in flames.
The small community would lose more than half of its approximately 70 homes to the Elephant Hill fire, one of the largest wildfires in B.C.’s history, just two months after the couple moved into their new house.
When Lorne Smith picked up the phone to talk to the Cloverdale Reporter, he was frustrated.
“We’re having an issue with Xplornet,” he said, referring to the rural internet service provider. “They’re charging us $500 for lost equipment.”
He explained that although he and his wife, Cheryl Merriman, were lucky to be one of those who were insured, the costs are adding up before they can even think about rebuilding.
“Your insurance will pay for [rebuilding your home], but costs come from everywhere,” he said.
On May 27, Smith and Merriman retired from Maple Ridge to the Cariboo, a place the couple had always loved. They purchased a three bedroom, two bathroom house on a one acre lot across from Pressy Lake, about 60 km southeast of 100 Mile House.
“A beautiful home,” said Smith. “An amazing place.”
By the end of July, Pressy Lake would be on evacuation order and the couple would leave to stay with friends at Sheridan Lake.
They wouldn’t ever see their home again.
“We didn’t get much time out of it,” said Smith.
According to Smith, the community lost about 50 of the 70 or so homes that stood before this summer’s wildfires ravaged the area.
“I believe it’s the single biggest loss [of homes],” said Smith. “More than Loon Lake or anywhere else.”
After about three weeks at Sheraton Lake, Smith and Merriman made the decision to move south due to the smoke, which was worsening and causing Merriman to become ill.
The Emergency Social Services (ESS) centre at 100 Mile House told them that there were two ESS centres in the Lower Mainland, one in Cloverdale and the other in Chilliwack. And so Smith and Merriman moved into a basement suite in Coquitlam owned by a friend, registered at the Cloverdale ESS centre, and waited.
They got the phone call on Aug. 18.
Smith knew what the news may be, as he and Merriman had watched the fire burn through the community over the Aug. 12 weekend via satellite pictures.
But, as he explained, “We had no idea how bad the damage was.”
“We got called on the Friday and they told us we’d lost our home,” he said. “My knees buckled. Cheryl just started crying. We lost everything.”
Smith and Merriman were insured, which makes them more fortunate than some of their neighbours at Pressy Lake. “A lot of people up there didn’t have insurance,” said Smith. “It’s expensive up there.”
Smith and Merriman will be able to rebuild someday. But not anytime soon.
“There’s still fires burning there,” he said. “It’s going to be a long haul.”
Despite everything, Smith was remarkably positive when he described the care that he and Merriman received at the Cloverdale ESS centre.
It was more than simply being able to access basic necessities, such as groceries or even dog food. It was about having a place to be heard.
“Considering the circumstance, it was a great experience,” said Smith. “The volunteers and staff were loving, compassionate. They wanted to hear our story, see pictures.”
Even after the ESS centre closed down on Aug. 30, the volunteers continued to reach out and check in with Smith and Merriman to make sure they had everything they needed.
Now that the centre is closed, Smith and Merriman have a 1-800 number to call, and the Red Cross checks in with them once a week as they wait for their insurance to kick in.
As they don’t yet know what their insurance will cover, they are relying on the Red Cross for certain necessities, such as clothes — Smith and Merriman evacuated with the clothes on their backs and a few “grocery bags” of clothes — and medicine, as Merriman is being treated for a lung infection she contracted from smoke inhalation.
“We’ll be looked after,” said Smith, although he misses being able to go to the ESS centre. “It was a place to go and connect, to tell your story. Now we’re on our own.”
As the interview came to a close, Smith wondered about Xplornet, and if they will come across any other unexpected costs.
He just doesn’t know, he said. Neither him nor Merriman know where to go from here. But he says that he knows they’ll be okay.
“We’ll move forward,” he said. “We’ll get through this.”