Struggling in the wake of the main show pulling up stakes. What happens when single industry towns go bust.
In Louis Creek, next to the moonscape where the lumber mill once stood, a dozen or so brand-new vinyl-sided houses have emerged from the ashes of the fire that destroyed the mill. Their sparkling new appearance creates an incongruous veneer of prosperity at odds with the scorched apocalyptic surroundings. Susan Chandler walks through the garden outside the new house she shares with her partner Rob Ruttan. She pauses next to the blackened apple tree. The fire roared through here so quickly it literally baked the fruit right on the branches. Now it hangs on the limbs like macabre Christmas decorations, the tree lifeless except for a small green shoot sprouting from the crotch of two lower branches.
Chandler and Ruttan could have easily chopped it down. Instead they left the tree standing – a fragile yet indomitable monument to the destruction that was wrought on this small community last summer but also to the sheer, stubborn resiliency of life. Her expression is hard, her eyes sad expressions of grief and sorrow. Most of all, Chandler seems exhausted. “Nothing could prepare you for this.” She shakes her head. “It was like someone had set off an atomic bomb. I think people are just grappling with their own problems still.” What is now known as the ‘McClure fire’ started July 30, 2003 on a sweltering Thursday afternoon behind the McClure Restaurant in Barriere, the small town about an hour’s drive north of Kamloops on the Yellowhead Highway and 10 km south of Louis Creek. Ignited from a cigarette carelessly discarded in the woods, the fire seemed manageable at first. It wasn’t. It spread quickly north engulfing the entire north Thompson Valley, on both sides of the river before descending on Louis Creek and continuing to the outskirts of Barriere. Days later, when the blaze was over, it left behind devastation, most significantly the destruction of the engine of this rural area’s economy – the Tolko Industries lumber mill in Louis Creek. The 180 workers from IWA Local 1-417 saw their $20-an-hour plus jobs go up in a literal cloud of smoke (see The Only Horse in Town, page 95). Seventy-two homes, most of them in Louis Creek, along with nine businesses and 26,420 hectares of timber had been destroyed. Property gone, the psychological effects of lives disrupted, homes destroyed and jobs lost; Chandler and the rest of the residents are still struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe. Ruttan and Chandler lost both home and business. Since the mid-1990s Ruttan had been building up an antique store in an old red brick building next to the Yellowhead Highway, growing it into a popular roadside attraction full of treasures that also housed a small post office. In minutes it was reduced to ashes. “Rural people are independent and self-sufficient,” says Chandler as she looks at the apple tree, “but you never think that disasters will happen in your own backyard.” The effects on Louis Creek and Barriere were multifold, disastrous. When those well-paying mill jobs were lost, the forest fire became a prism that brought the troubling pathos of small-town B.C. sharply into focus: How do you chart a course into the future when the one horse that drove the town has fled the farm? A slumping economy with no clear path forward, young families leaving in search of work, an elementary school on the verge of being shut and an overall sense of malaise and uncertainty about the region’s future. It all sounds too familiar. In this, Barriere and Louis Creek join a host of other small, unincorporated towns. The little black dots on the road map with funny names sprinkled between the major economic centres of the province, the places where the schools and clinics are closing. The places where mines and mills carried on with the same permanence and predictability as the rising sun. The McClure fire has forced this little community to look in the mirror. The North Thompson valley is a fertile and verdant tapestry of farmland and forest. Houses and barns are set among fields of flax, hay and corn that sway in the breeze next to the broad river that meanders down to meet its southern counterpart at Kamloops. Today it retains this bucolic atmosphere despite the chaos and havoc wrought by the fire last year. Where the road to ‘downtown’ Barriere exits the Yellowhead Highway, a hand-painted sign cheers on the town’s very own Olympian, Erin Gannel, a 24-year-old member of the 2004 swim team. Farther down the main street there’s the local AG Foods, its newsstand dominated by hunting, fishing and car magazines. Then there’s the grocery store with boarded up windows that was briefly reopened and converted into a food bank after the fire. Further on there’s the one-garage fire hall, post office, credit union and a seemingly inordinate number of beauty salons for a town of this size: Styling By Stevens, Crysti’s Alley and Shalon Salon. Compared to Louis Creek, Barriere got off lightly. Today when you drive through Louis Creek, new houses and green grass are growing through blackened soil where dozens of houses once stood. Most of the burnt wreckage of the sawmill has been removed; all that remains is an old beehive burner protruding above a vast, flat empty lot. On this warm summer afternoon, Al Kirkwood, a blunt character with the subtlety of a sailor on shore leave, presses his foot to the floor and speeds up the Yellowhead Highway in his Volkswagen Cabriolet, soft-top down pointing out the charred landscape out the window. As Barriere’s volunteer fire chief, Kirkwood remembers vividly the moment the mill was gone, recounting like someone calling a play-by-play how the fire progressed out of control.
Buoyed by the tinder-dry conditions and extremely low humidity of what was a summer of record-breaking heat, the fire quickly gathered strength and spread rapidly that fateful Thursday afternoon. By late that evening it had spread north up the valley, incinerating power lines, jumping the North Thompson River and racing up Skull Mountain. Friday morning it swooped down Louis Creek with a ferocity that surprised even seasoned firefighters such as Kirkwood. Experts often refer to a forest fire’s ‘behavior’ as though it was a conscious entity with actions and thoughts. In that sense the McClure fire was one unpredictable beast, burning one house to the ground but leaving the home next door completely unscathed, green lawn, swing set and picket fence eerily intact. Kirkwood is a man in a rather unique position. As fire chief he was as close to the heart of the fire as anyone. As publisher of the local weekly, the David Black-owned North Thompson Star/Journal, he’s got his ear permanently on the grapevine. Crossing the Louis Creek bridge, Kirkwood recalls traveling the same route that July day under very different circumstances when it seemed like hell’s fury had suddenly been unleashed on his sleepy little valley. With his wife and daughter sitting next to him in his pickup, he had followed a fire truck from Clearwater struggling to make it back to Barriere, the Tolko mill a raging inferno on one side of the road, the forest ablaze on the other. “We drove through a tunnel of smoke and I was thinking, ‘If we stop here, we’re dead,’ ” Kirkwood recalls, the memory scorchingly vivid. “I never imagined something like this, not in my wildest dreams. When I signed up with the fire department I wanted to help the community. I’m a f...ing ad salesman, I mean I had no idea this could happen. Two hundred fire trucks couldn’t have stopped this fire.” By late Friday afternoon the fire had advanced further north and had almost encircled Barriere, most of whose citizens had been evacuated to Kamloops. Most but not all. Kirkwood slept for 28 nights on a cot in the Barriere fire hall, fighting the fire and mopping up after the imminent danger was over. The physical mopping up is completed, the psychological one continues. “There’s been some animosity between people,” explains Kirkwood. “Some people had insurance and others didn’t and they’ve received a lot of help. But for the most part it’s brought people together. It’s brought out a lot of good in people.” Hands firmly on the steering wheel, Kirkwood chuckles. “At least we’re going to get a new fire truck out of the deal.” In spite of the fire, this slice of the North Thompson still has a lot going for it – rainbow trout on nearby lakes, schools, well-respected health clinic, decent housing market. It’s for these reasons some people have struggled with the question: Should I stay or should I go? [pagebreak] Bob Armstrong kneels on an oil-stained Husqvarna and pulls the cord furiously, trying to coax a spark from the tired old two-stroke. An assortment of chainsaws, weed whackers, mowers and even a couple of go-carts are scattered around, like offerings to the shrine of internal combustion, awaiting repairs. “Damn! I had this thing going five minutes ago”, says Armstrong, giving it one last yank before abandoning it for the moment and retreating to a shady spot behind his house. The sky above is hazy, the air faintly scented with smoke from a distant forest fire. A visceral reminder of when, almost a year ago to the day, the fire hit and Armstrong’s life changed. Philosophically, he lights a smoke and sits back in his lawn chair. At more than six feet tall, with a cascade of black hair and a Harley Davidson T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, Armstrong cuts a rather imposing figure, but he’s as upbeat and positive as a Cub Scout leader. And if there was ever a time for maintaining a positive attitude in this corner of rural British Columbia, it’s now. Armstrong was one of the180 mill workers from IWA Local 1-417 who lost their jobs when the Louis Creek mill burned. Today, he points to a shiny new red sedan in the driveway; he bought that new car for his wife less than a month before losing his job in what you might call a poorly timed purchase. Very poorly timed. On October 2, 2003, the community got the news everyone expected but hoped not to hear; Tolko would not rebuild the Louis Creek Mill. In one fiery afternoon, at least $5 million in annual salaries had vanished from the local economy. At the time B.C.’s forest industry was suffering from the one-two punch of the softwood lumber dispute and a buoyant Canadian dollar. Tolko cited these economic factors, coupled with the lack of a railway spur and natural gas line at Louis Creek, as the main reasons behind the decision. Injury to insult but Tolko also said that logs from its tree farm licence (Crown land on which private companies pay stumpage fees for the right to log) in the North Thompson would be re-routed to some of its 10 remaining mills in the province, including its plywood plant at Hefley Creek, 20 kilometres north of Kamloops. Employees with a trade or special skill such as Armstrong, who was the mill first-aid attendant, had the chance of a position at one of the company’s other operations. But prospects for unskilled laborers, like the guys working the green chain, were not so promising. Unlike some of his colleagues who chased mill jobs elsewhere, Armstrong decided to dig in with his wife and three-year-old daughter. He took his modest $15,000 severance package, traded his first-aid kit for some wrenches and opened up a small-engine repair shop. “Instead of picking up and moving on I thought I may as well stay and make a go of it,” says Armstrong between drags on his smoke. “You know the forest industry these days; if I leave town I could be in the same position a year from now. But it’s tough starting your own business. I’ll give it a year and we’ll see where we are.” Deftly tamping out the butt, Armstrong gets up to look at the troublesome chainsaw; as troublesome you might say as kick-starting the economy in what politicians these days like to refer to as the ‘heartland’ but what locals joke used to be called the ‘hinterland’. Meaningless semantics aside, it’s that amorphous part of the province that produces things like minerals, wood, fish and other raw resources, the dusty, dirty, sloppy and very vital things that prop up the provincial economy and ultimately support the big urban centres; whether these urban centres truly care about what happens to their small-town providers is another question entirely.
It’s 9:15 a.m. at Lily’s Café in Barriere, the kind of place where the waitress calls you ‘dear’ or ‘sweetheart’ and the daily special is a clubhouse on white. A song by INXS plays on the AM radio, and a rack by the front door displays postcards commemorating the ‘Firestorm’ of 2003. Outside the café’s front window, across the highway, one can see the skeletal remains of a forest on the ridges above town. Bill Kershaw strides into Lily’s Café, asks the waitress about a mutual friend then sits down at the table and wraps both big hands around a mug of coffee. Clad in work boots and shorts stained with grease, Kershaw has the craggy appearance of a guy who has worked with his hands most of his life. Kershaw’s roots run deep. Arriving in the valley in 1968, he bought and then ran the local Esso for 22 years and now does occasional wrench work for a logging contractor while juggling his political duties. Since 1995 Kershaw has been representing the Barriere-Louis Creek region, so-called Area O, at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. Last summer when Barierre was evacuated, Kershaw was one of the few people who remained. Flames licking at the town’s edges and power and phone lines down, Kershaw assumed the role of communication liaison. Via two-way radio he stayed in touch with residents holed up south in Kamloops who had no idea what to expect after the fire had swept through. When, in the haze of confusion, rumors circulated among evacuees and the media that the entire town had fallen to the flames, it was Kershaw who kept their hopes alive. Asked how the town has been affected since, Kershaw finds it hard to know where to begin. People and jobs? Between the two communities, the area’s population sits at around 4,000 or so; the area’s unemployment rate hovers at 16 per cent, twice the provincial average. Mill workers were the fire’s obvious immediate economic victims, but ranchers were also hit hard. As if the BSE crisis wasn’t enough, local cattleman lost around 100 kilometres of fencing to the fire at a replacement cost of $10,000/km. Although federal MP Hedy Fry was on hand immediately after the fire with big promises – “I want people to know that relief will be here” – Kershaw says Ottawa’s response has been lacklustre. So far the Feds have kicked in $600,000 to help ranchers replace fencing, a project that one year later is still ongoing and $500,000 shy of what’s needed to string the remaining fence line. On the other hand, Kershaw has been pleased with the provincial government’s assistance, surprising considering that rural B.C. is the source of great antipathy toward the current Liberal government. Victoria was quick to pony up a $2-million hardship fund to help keep the lights on and pay the bills of businesses that were closed for nearly one month during peak tourism season. Another $1 million was earmarked to hire an economic development officer on a 10-year term to help the region move forward.Exactly what the economic magic pill will be – if there is such a thing – is still unclear. Over the past year promises of jobs for displaced workers have fallen short of expectations. Tolko has been harshly criticized for not rebuilding the Louis Creek mill yet continuing to take fibre out of the North Thompson for processing elsewhere. The company in turn rigorously defends its actions. Tolko communications manager Sheila Caitlin says the company has shelled out $5 million in severance pay and of the 180 jobs lost at Louis Creek, 86 people have found new positions in the industry either with Tolko or with other companies. The remaining workers have either taken early retirement, are retraining or, like Armstrong, have opened small businesses. “It was not an easy decision but we felt that replacing capacity [from Louis Creek] at our other mills instead of rebuilding would help us be more globally competitive,” says Caitlin. “With our mill at Hefley Creek we’re still active in the North Thompson. We haven’t abandoned that area.” Kershaw is philosophical about the challenges now faced by the community: “In the big picture this mill was probably destined to be closed. We have to start as a community to look beyond wood and say ‘Can we get something else going here, like small manufacturing?’ ” Currently a deal is in the works between Victoria and Tolko for a cash deal or land swap – or combination of the two – that would secure the former mill site in Louis Creek for development as a new light-industrial park. Kershaw says at less than $20,250/hectare, the proposed industrial park is a bargain compared to the Lower Mainland or even nearby Kamloops. He believes North Thompson, serviced by a good highway and the CN railway, will be ripe for investment. Fresh country air and great trout fishing on nearby lakes like the Barriere and Lac La Roche doesn’t hurt either. If and when the land swap goes through, Kershaw says all they’ll need are some commercial tenants. Meanwhile, Kershaw sips his coffee as one loaded logging truck after another roars down the highway, dust billowing behind. Currently there’s a mini boom in the local logging industry as companies scramble to salvage burned timber, most being sent to mills nowhere near Barriere. With each passing day, the hills on both sides of the North Thompson River resemble more and more a giant clearcut. The Shuswap Nation Tribal Council was given a salvage logging licence and permission to export raw logs to the U.S. and has so far sold 1,600 truckloads to Riley Creek Lumber Co. of Idaho. The salvage logging that is keeping truckers and equipment operators busy around Barriere these days will be short-lived, perhaps two years tops to clean up the burned timber. It is then that the realities of losing the mill will truly begin to sink in. Everybody knows it but there seems to be a sort of gold-rush myopia at play. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say. To ‘look beyond wood’ takes new capital, among other things. Attracting the interest of potential investors is not easy when your town suffers from what you might call an identity crisis. As an unincorporated town, Barriere lacks a mayor and council to take on economic and social initiatives and propel them forward. Kershaw’s is the lone voice at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. As he notes, you can only call on a limited pool of volunteers so many times to sit on this committee or that before they simply burn out.Beyond political expediency, becoming incorporated has a lot to do with establishing an image for a town. Or as Randy Hedlund says, creating a ‘brand’. Hedlund is the newly appointed economic development officer for Barriere as well as a number of other North Thompson communities. It’s his job to be positive and upbeat. Like Kershaw, Hedlund also touts the availability of cheap industrial land and good transportation access, as well as the chance to cash in on the $240-million planned expansion at nearby Sun Peaks Resort. Optimism is free and Hedlund says he’s going to channel his energy into putting the North Thompson on the map, perhaps even purloin some of the lustre from that Babylon to the south – the Okanagan Valley. “I think you’re going to see this valley become the rags to riches story – not tomorrow, not the day after but perhaps by 2010.” Others are also optimistic in the future, with certain provisos. Al Bush and his wife June are the kind of energetic, hospitable people that make small towns tick. Sitting around their kitchen table over a heaping platter of salmon sandwiches, they share their worries and hopes with BCBusiness. Bush is convinced a community forest that would keep fibre, and therefore jobs, in the area could be the key to a stable economic future. For locals like the Bushes, seeing potential timber processing jobs literally being trucked away is salt on an open wound, especially given today’s frantically buoyant lumber market. But Al Bush, a former Tolko employee and now a forestry consultant, isn’t turning his back on the industry just yet. He’s a member of the aptly named Heartland Communities Preservation Alliance that is trying to secure a community forest tenure from the provincial government. He says the group has interest from a private company that would open a value-added mill – window frames, doors, flooring, etcetera – given a reliable source of local fibre. The society is asking for two licences – a three-year 100,000-cubic-metre-per-year beetle kill salvage licence, as well as an annual 60,000-cubic-metre community forest licence. It hoped to receive an answer on the salvage licence by early November. Al is not one to mince words. In his eyes, it’s hang together – or hang separately. “It’s pretty serious right now; families are leaving. There’s nothing for young kids to do here. If we lose all the young people then we’ll just be a bunch of old farts and then we’re done for. The heartland is the core. You cut out the heart and you people in Vancouver are going to die.” Meanwhile, small-town B.C. is suffering (see In Search of the Magic Pill, opposite). Once you get out beyond the big urban centres in this province, it’s an all too common tale of cataclysmic transformation and upheaval forced upon people when big industry folds the tent and moves on. Back at Bob Armstrong’s small-engine repair shop, business has been brisk all afternoon. Finally he returns to the balky chainsaw, tweaks the carburetor, yanks the cord . . . and the machine comes to life with a satisfying sputter. On the highway, trucks loaded with dusty, blackened logs roar past, the area’s future going, going, gone in what some call an illusion of prosperity. A car pulls up, a guy steps out and hauls a weed whacker from his trunk. “Can you get this done for tomorrow, Bob?” “We’ll work on ’er,” replies Armstrong. “Drop by tomorrow afternoon.” The customer leaves. Armstrong plunks the chainsaw down with a cheerful smile. “Let’s just say that I’m keeping the wolves at bay.” All these small engines won’t replace a cushy union position at a mill; the area is hurting bad. Change isn’t a choice for the North Thompson; it’s happening whether people like it or not. If places like Barriere and Louis Creek and other similar small towns are to survive, it will take entrepreneurial spirit like Armstrong’s to breathe some life back into the heartland or hinterland, or whatever the spin doctors down in Victoria call places like this. Armstrong cracks a beer and reclines into a lawn chair – another day, another dollar. Back at Louis Creek, the sun has descended behind Skull Mountain casting the charred apple tree outside Chandler and Ruttan’s house in skeletal shadows. Chandler walks back inside, returns with an envelope and reads a few lines from the letter that arrived just weeks after the fire. It was from an elderly couple in 100 Mile House who had stopped just once at the antique store a year previous and had witnessed its destruction on the evening news. A cheque for $100 was enclosed. Even one year later, Chandler seems dumbfounded by such a simple yet profound gesture. Sift through the detritus of tragedy, you can always find nuggets of human kindness and compassion. “If you ask me in three years, I’d be able to say what it has done to the community,” says Chandler. “I guess this fire will be with us forever.” Sift through the human soul, you can always find quiet yet indomitable resolve.