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First Skwlāx members return home, 3 months after devastating B.C. wildfire

Click to play video: 'Fire-damaged First Nation rebuilds'
Fire-damaged First Nation rebuilds
A B.C. First Nation devastated by wildfire says the disaster has made the community stronger. Three months later, some residents are finally being allowed back. As Kylie Stanton reports, the chief says in the face of such great loss, he is proud of how his people have responded – Nov 22, 2023

Three months after their community was devastated by a wildfire, some members of the Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw First Nation have marked an encouraging milestone.

The Adams Lake Complex fire raged through North Shuswap community, located just outside Chase, on Aug. 18, destroying 31 of the community’s 82 homes.

Click to play video: 'Skwla̓x te Secwe̓pemcu̓lecw chief describes dramatic escape from wildfire'
Skwla̓x te Secwe̓pemcu̓lecw chief describes dramatic escape from wildfire

Leading a tour of their land on Wednesday, Ku̓kpi7 (Chief) James Tomma said community members whose homes were not destroyed by the fire were finally allowed to return home last week.

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“That was a great comfort to even the ones such as myself that don’t have a home to return to,” he said.

“It gave us comfort to know that the people from Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw were able to come back on the land.”

Tomma said the community held a homecoming celebration and a brushing off ceremony to clear out negative energy and set their return off on the right foot.

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Despite the scale of the destruction, he said the hardship has actually brought the community together, and helped make them stronger than ever.

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Skwlāx members coming to terms with loss'
B.C. wildfires: Skwlāx members coming to terms with loss

“It was phenomenal seeing – and really heartwarming to see how my people reacted after the catastrophe,” he said, adding that he believes as the fire tore through it erased lines that had been drawn between families for decades.

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“Our band is quite small, 390 people, and we filled the conference centre. People laugh, learning again how to be a people together, and it felt really good for me.”

Tomma is among those who lost their home to the fire.

Three months ago, he described fleeing the property down to the river through a “war zone” as the flames roared past them with terrifying speed.

He and his brothers survived by sheltering under the Skwlāx bridge until they were rescued by boat.

Click to play video: 'B.C. wildfires: Evacuees returning to Shuswap fire zone'
B.C. wildfires: Evacuees returning to Shuswap fire zone

On Wednesday he said he lost virtually everything he had — save for the two most important things, his wife and his cat, Smudge.

As Ku̓kpi7, he said his will be the last home to be rebuilt.

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“I have to put my people in front of me,” he said. “When the last band member can open a door and close it behind them and say they are home, I can build mine.”

While the fire was incredibly destructive, the community escaped with its band office, fire hall and wellness centre intact.

For now, those without homes remain “scattered” in the nearby communities of Kamloops, Sorrento and Salmon Arm.

The community is hoping to start rebuilding homes lost in the fire next year — but Tomma said even with insurance the process is expected to be costly, with not only homes but infrastructure to be replaced as well.

Money, however, is the last thing on the community’s mind right now.

“We lost so much,” he said. “But we are gaining back our people, being a band again.”

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