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Skwlāx chief recounts wildfire escape: ‘The fire people were not going to be denied’

Skwlāx te Secwépemc lost 31 houses in the fire as it crossed the land between the two lakes
Skwlāx te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (chief) James Tomma addresses media at the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council band office on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Sean Brady/KTW)

—Kamloops This Week

When the Bush Creek East wildfire crossed Shuswap Lake and Little Shuswap Lake, Skwlāx te Secwépemc stood in its way as the land bridge between north and south.

It was there where three brothers, and the band, took a stand against the blaze. But there was no stopping it.

On Friday, James and two of his brothers, Rocky and Ronnie, spoke with media about their experience in fighting and fleeing the fire.

“My brother put it so eloquently at the time, that ‘the fire people wanted to dance.’ They weren’t going to be denied that day. We could hear them dancing,” James said.

“And then the wind people joined in and they took what they needed.”

At last count, 31 homes were lost at Skwlāx te Secwépemc, formerly referred to as the Little Shuswap Lake Band.

Rocky and James each lost their homes that day, on Friday, Aug. 18. Ronnie did not.

“I got a home to go back to. I don’t consider myself lucky at all, when my band hasn’t got a home to go to. I don’t wanna go back home, be too alone, without my people there,” Ronnie said.

Around noon on Friday, the Kukpi7 was put on alert after a visit from a BC Wildfire Service worker. He immediately sent band office staff home and began wetting down areas around his home, laying out hoses to protect structures.

Not long after, that alert changed to an order. James and his brothers took up the fight at other houses, but were ultimately pushed out by the inferno.

“I got my wife out… seconds. Things were falling all around us. She got out with our kitty. We saved our kitty, Smudge,” James said.

The escape was so close the trio couldn’t even get to their vehicles in time. They retreated and took refuge under the Squilax Bridge, but were then trapped there.

James said two Adams Lake band members, “two brave boys,” took to the water and told the chief by phone they were coming to get him.

That rescue, which James said he cautioned against, was a success. But from the boat, all he can remember is seeing his community go up in flames.

“People are just coming to terms with what was lost,” James said.

While many houses were lost, James said there is still much left standing, including community living buildings, townhouses, the band’s wellness centre and connected residential units, most of Veterans Lane and the cemetery.

And while structure losses were immense, no lives were lost.

James said the morning after the fire, one person was unaccounted for. He said the entire band was worried over the weekend, but good news came on Monday morning that the lone person unaccounted for was alive and well.

“You know, yeah, we lost houses, but the important thing… That house doesn’t become a home unless family is in there. And everybody from the community got out safely,” he said.

Rocky said he has felt an outpouring of support since the fire came through.

“Not only we as a community are hurting, everyone is hurting with us. I’ve had friends calling me, asking how I am, am I okay. They’re feeling with me. ‘Cause that house meant a lot, not only to us as a family, but to them, also. My mom welcomed anybody and everybody to that home,” he said.

The band must now turn to healing, James said, pointing to laughter as the best medicine Tkelt Kukpi7 (the creator) can provide.

“Hearing my elders laughing and joking, knowing that they don’t have anything to go back to, but they can still sit down with each other and visit and share grief together, but also heal,” James said.

Rebuilding costs are expected to be in the tens of millions, James said, noting he hoped to get band members back into their homes before the snow flies.

The Kukpi7 also took a moment on Friday to thank firefighters for their efforts.

“I’d like to once again reiterate and extend my gratitude and appreciation to all those brave young men and women that put their lives on the line for communities and families that weren’t theirs,” he said.

“There’s no failure. There is none. The fire people were not going to be denied.”

READ MORE: Highway 1 reopens, flames visible from Shuswap wildfire