People and supplies are starting to trickle back into Williams Lake as the city and regional district prepare for citizens to re-enter the community, evacuated due to threat of wildfires.
“I’m hoping any day now,” said Mayor Walt Cobb Monday morning.
An evacuation alert has been in place for two weeks while the actual order to evacuate is going on Day 10 for thousands of urban and rural residents in the Cariboo Chilcotin. Residents of fire-threatened communities like 150 Mile House and Wildwood have been out of their homes since since the start of the wildfires Friday July 7.
Sunday evening, July 23, at a checkpoint south of Williams Lake along Highway 97 and Enterprise Road, everyone from water truck drivers, to local doctors, business owners and mechanics with permits travelled through the checkpoints, manned by members of the RCMP and 1 Combat Engineer Regime (1CER) CFB Edmonton, who can be seen throughout the area and in the city working with the RCMP.
“We are happy to help,” said Sgt. Alex Mezenes, who has been with the army 11 years and has previously been deployed to Afghanistan.
“As long as there is a need for us, we will be here.”
Cpl. Brent Kelly, who worked the checkpoint with Mezenes at the Y intersection in Williams Lake Monday morning, said he is happy to be serving in Williams Lake.
“Everybody has been really receptive and understanding,” Kelly said. “We are getting all kinds of special treatment from the RCMP and the locals. Everyone’s been really nice.”
The army has been using the Cariboo Memorial Recreation Complex as their base, where dozens of army vehicles are parked. Members who are out on patrol sleep in tents beside their vehicles while those having a day off can sleep in the arena on cots, and have access to their own kitchen.
W.O. Terry Vandenberghe, who has served 25 years with the Canadian Army and completed two tours to Afghanistan and two to Bosnia, said the members who came to Williams Lake are a fully self-contained unit.
“We came out here completely self-sufficient,” Vandenberghe said.
“What we come in with, we leave with.”
While the army and RCMP are enforcing the evacuation order, business owners and managers such as the local grocery stores are trying to get up and running.
Save-On-Foods is facing the biggest challenge with reopening.
Following a brief power outage during the evacuation order, compressors went down in the store and spoiled all the food in the freezers, deli and produce departments. As many as 6,000 jugs of milk and all perishables were lost due to the failure, totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost food.
“Unfortunately it had to go to waste. Very sad,” said store manager, Paul Eckersley. He said the store was fully stocked when the evacuation alert turned into an order.
“Until we were ordered to evacuate, we wanted to stay open. Everyone needs food and we knew we had to be here.”
Eckersley said they have managed to get some staff back to assist in emptying and washing the whole store before it reopens.
“We need as army to do it and it looks like we’ve got that today,” Eckersley said Monday, as he and his staff went to work.
The emergency department at Cariboo Memorial Hospital also opened its doors Monday, another key piece of the puzzle needed to welcome residents home.
The mayor said as everyone prepares to open the city, the fate of when exactly that will be is up to the weather and the fire officials.
Either way, he suspects even when residents return home the threat of fires burning near the city may remain throughout the summer. Exhausted, he is hopeful Williams Lake has seen the worst of it.
“I think the worst of it’s over. It’s gotta be,” said Cobb. “We can’t go on like this.”