By Sarah Christensen
In the remote British Columbian backcountry, wildfires are a common summer hazard. For ranchers and small-town residents, fire emergency plans are part of everyday life, and evacuations are not unusual. Yet the fire season of 2017 presaged a disquieting new normal for these isolated communities. A dry spring had given way to a scorching summer, with temperatures reaching highs not seen in the region for decades. Wildfires sprang up in their hundreds throughout the province, stretching government firefighting resources dangerously thin. By the end of the summer, over 65,000 British Columbians would be evacuated from their homes, and nearly three million acres would succumb to the flames.
It was in mid-July of 2017 that the Elephant Hill Wildfire started smoldering near the small city of Kamloops, about four hours northeast of Vancouver, deep in the Cariboo Mountain Range. Over the course of two months, the fire burned through 644 square miles of pristine wilderness and prompted multiple evacuation warnings. Squarely in the path of that wildfire lay Siwash Lake Wilderness Resort.
Siwash Lake Wilderness Resort is a nature lover’s paradise—and the life’s work of owner and operator Allyson Rogers. An avid rancher and equine expert, Allyson transformed 10,000 acres of raw wilderness into an ideal escape for wilderness enthusiasts, horseback riders, and anyone seeking a return to the rhythms of nature. She designed and built a ranch house out of logs hewn from the surrounding forest and welcomed guests seeking a connection to the cowboy way of life. After 25 years, Allyson’s dream has unquestionably become reality. Siwash Lake is an internationally renowned wilderness retreat, where people travel from all over the world to explore and relax in a stunning landscape of pine forests, golden meadows, and glittering lakes. “I thought I’d hit the peak of my career,” she says. “Our place was getting some amazing accolades. Then the fire hit, and it was like: holy cow. I’ve been thrown one more challenge.”
In late July, Siwash received an evacuation order from the Canadian government. The fire had made a rapid run in the night as unusually high winds whipped over the mountains. Firefighting forces were nowhere to be seen as the blaze chewed its way closer to the edges of the property where Allyson lives with her family and lodge employees. “Evacuating was out of the question,” says Allyson. “This is my life’s work, and I had some very dedicated staff members who believe in the place. Leaving was not an option. We knew that if we left, it would burn.”
As the smoke thickened, Allyson and her team used sprinklers, hoses, and water cannons to soak the meadows surrounding the ranch house, creating a perimeter of drenched earth around everything they hoped to save. “We Macgyvered an irrigation system around the heart of the operation,” says Allyson. “I phoned a freelance firefighting fellow and he came in with three of his colleagues—just like the Navy SEALS. They bolstered what we had already planned and taught us about fire behavior, how to create safety zones, and how to use hoses or shovels to mitigate the flames.” Equipped with flame-retardant uniforms, radios, and hoses, the team waited for the heart of the fire to reach Siwash Lake.
“It was about five hours of total firestorm.” Allyson describes the intense hours spent fighting the wildfire as it surged around the property. “The flames were two or three hundred feet in the air. My mind was saying, I want this to be over. I want this to be over. It was so in-the-moment, running around putting fires out. It was like whack-a-mole.” Hot winds tossed burning debris into the air, creating a whirling ember storm. “Like a blizzard of tiny hot coals coming at you horizontally, landing everywhere, potentially lighting things up.”
After hours spent running across the property pouring water on smoking embers and beating out licks of flame amid a roaring inferno, the fire moved beyond Siwash, and only smoke remained. Exhausted, Allyson and her team set about the heartbreaking task of evaluating the damage. “It was like someone had died,” Allyson reflects. “It was insane to try and get my head around it.” Many of the lodge’s outbuildings had been consumed by the flames. Vibrant woodlands and rolling grasslands for miles around were blackened and choked in an orange haze. “But I realized” says Allyson, “I’m still alive, and we had saved the place.”
As they worked their way through the charred forest, putting out small fires, Allyson and her staff made miraculous discoveries. Lush green forest glades, thriving wetlands, hidden meadows—a few remarkable places remained untouched by the fire. “A refugia is an area that has escaped the flames—an island of green,” explains Allyson. “These oases contain the mother trees whose cones spur regeneration.” They also promised hope for renewal.
A woman with a passion can be a force of nature. Allyson threw herself into the restoration of Siwash Lake. Hoses and water cannons went away; fences and outbuildings went up again. The horses returned to hillside pastures where grasses had begun to flourish in old meadows and new clearings. Bright magenta fireweed—the first colonizer after a wildfire—blossomed in vast swathes under the blackened branches of snag forests, creating a rarely seen landscape of stunning contrasts. This triggered a feedback loop of regrowth: fallen trees provided new habitats for insects, which in turn attracted birds and rodents, who helped to spread seeds. Hawks and owls flocked to open fields where hunting was easier. Mule deer and elk were drawn to the tender new growth and clearings that allowed them to spot predators more easily. Predators, naturally, followed. The post-fire ecosystem provided valuable opportunities for flora and fauna adapted to this vital environmental cycle.
Inspired by the remarkable power of renewal, Allyson established a nature reserve at Siwash Lake with the goal of protecting, showcasing, and studying the fragile post-fire ecosystem, as well as forging connections among the various actors involved in the region’s future. “In that year following the fire, there was a lot going on out here that we didn’t expect,” Allyson explains. “The mushroomers moved in—hordes of mushroom pickers that follow big fires in RV camps. Then there’s talk of logging. All I’ve done for the last 25 years is try to mitigate the effects of clear-cut logging, and suddenly the fire was an excuse to come in and clear-cut logs. Every industry has a right to do its activities,” says Allyson, “but our concern was that nobody seemed to have a long-term thinking cap on. Lots of people running around, but nobody being connected.”
The Wildland Private Nature Reserve at Siwash Lake is a nonprofit ecotourism society designed to promote the regeneration of the Cariboo ecosystem and facilitate open, thoughtful access. “The fire was a disturbance,” says Allyson, “but it was a natural disturbance. All the things coming after were secondary, man-made disturbances—potentially more impactful than the fire itself. We’re asking people to do things more mindfully to make sure that we maintain the long-term integrity of the ecosystem.” While the reserve is still in its infancy, Allyson is in the process of securing additional land near Siwash for the establishment of an ecology society. Researchers will be invited to study the regeneration of the post-fire ecosystem, while lodge guests and other visitors can learn about nature’s resilience through hands-on involvement in the landscape.
Together, Allyson and the wilderness she loves have passed through the flames and emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. As the pine forests and wildflower meadows around Siwash Lake thrive in spectacular and unexpected ways, attracting old friends and new visitors to this remote paradise, Allyson’s work continues. “I’m determined to demonstrate that we can turn this natural disaster into something impactful.” As a woman in the wilderness, a cowgirl, and a female business owner, Allyson knows what it means to face the forces of nature with persistence and fight to protect what is most important. “Believe in yourself, and don’t take no for an answer,” she says. “Most importantly, maintain your resiliency. Embrace what comes at you and be ready to make the most of it.”
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