When Jeremy Welch and his family moved out of Maple Ridge just two weeks ago, they thought they were leaving behind ever-rising house prices for a picturesque new home in the Cariboo.
“It was a decision to try and make our family a unit that didn’t have to have a dual income and daycare,” Welch said. “Mum could stay home and take care of the baby and we could have a yard for him to play in.”
Instead, just days after getting the keys to their new place in 100 Mile House, Jeremy, 38, his wife Darcie, 38, and seven-month-old Riley found themselves evacuating their Elliot Lake Road home.
“We took possession on July 1 and, within a few days, the fire started,” Jeremy said. “We had just started picking out paint colours.”
Eight days ago, when the Gustafsen wildfire started, it was so small that they couldn’t imagine it lasting. As of yesterday, it covered 5,000 hectares.
Firefighters attempting to extinguish the Gustafsen fire when it first started. Max Winkelman photo
“We figured, the next day it would be out – that they would have it under control,” Jeremy said.
The first day of the fire – when it still seemed innocuous – the Welches watched as firefighting planes circled overhead and dropped water on the blaze. Darcie, whose family lived in 100 Mile House and was the reason the Welches chose the town, took Riley and went to stay with her parents.
Jeremy stayed behind, painting and organizing their new home. He woke up the next morning to a wildfire worn down to almost nothing. Darcie planned to return home to help install sprinklers at the house, just in case.
Then the wind started.
“It turned this fire into a raging storm that they have no control of,” he told Black Press on Tuesday.
Jeremy Welch snapped this photo of his house before leaving 100 Mile House. Jeremy Welch Photo
Conservation officers came by the house and told Jeremy to get out. “Now!”
“I had no time. I grabbed some of our important paperwork and hooked up our cargo trailer.”
RELATED: 100 Mile is under evacuation
They thought they’d be back in a day.
“We didn’t take it seriously enough to dig through our boxes to find all our most important things,” Jeremy said.
The Welches went to stay with Darcie’s family in Buffalo Creek.
“It was about a 15-minute drive away from the fire. But 15 highway minutes of driving… so a fair bit.”
VIDEO: The Welch family relive their escape from 100 Mile House
A fair bit didn’t turn out to be far enough. Buffalo Creek was put under an evacuation alert.
“It was tough to know what we should do; whether we should stay or whether we should go,” Jeremy said.
“It was really smoky, so with the little guy we didn’t know if it would be safe,” Darcie said. “With leaving, I was worried that if the highways were closed going out of town, we didn’t want to be stuck in the vehicle on the road and a fire pops up.”
“It was kind of scary that way. It was so smoky,” Jeremy said. “The thought that if our escape route, if the information wasn’t accurate, and by the time we got there the fires had shifted…”
They decided to chance leaving.
“It seemed so surreal, that we went up there to achieve our dream and it’s just gone,” Darcie said. They got ready in a haze, grabbing their few possessions as well as those of Darcie’s parents, who were out in Tofino when the evacuation alert was issued.
“We packed up what we could in a frenzy, me with him strapped onto my back because he was being fussy,” Darcie said. “We were a mess by the time we got out of there.”
BC Wildfire Service planes fight the Gustafsen fire. Bob Grant Photo
So on the day Riley turned seven months old, the Welches made the harrowing seven-hour drive from Buffalo Creek down to Langley.
Riley didn’t seem to mind it too much.
“We kept him pretty happy,” Jeremy said. “He’s such a tough little guy.”
The trio arrived at a friend’s house in Langley early Tuesday afternoon – just hours before speaking to Black Press. They plan to stay there until the fire dies down and they can return to 100 Mile.
Jeremy and Darcie are determined to keep up a brave face for Riley. Still, they can’t help but agonize over what’s left of their new life up north.
“We may not have a house. Our house is on the front line of the fire,” Jeremy said.
“We know that no matter what happens, if the house is still there or it’s gone, the community is burned out. It’s tough to know that’s what we’re going back to.”