Among those still reeling from the devastation is Jeff Findlay, a former RCMP officer who has operated a popular trail-riding horse ranch in Bear Creek for nearly a decade.
“It was burned to dust. It looks like Mars. Like a nuclear bomb was dropped in there. Everything is dead,” Findlay said of his home, barn and the 600 acres of land the Broken Rail Ranch leased for trail riding.
“This is my life … gone just like that.”
For the past month, Findlay has spent his days visiting the 20 horses he and his wife are now boarding in southeast Kelowna.
The couple were able to save every single horse, after following their instincts to begin evacuating the animals on the morning of Aug. 18, before the fire ripped into the community.
“By the time we got the horses out, the fire came over the ridge. You could see it burning down towards our houses, our neighbourhood — there’s about 50 houses in there, I think 80 per cent of them burned,” he told Global News.
The couple spent two weeks living out of suitcases in a hotel room, and are now doing the same from a friend’s house.
They were able to save photographs, a few clothes and make a video record of their possessions before they had to flee.
But with the property and the trails razed to the ground, the ranch will have to close up shop. Findlay said he now has to sell the horses — which cost about $7,000 per month to care for — to avoid bankruptcy.
“So our business is done. We’re right now supporting 20 horses with no income,” he said.
“It’s destroying. It’s terrible.”
Beyond the economics, there is a personal cost.
After 23 years in law enforcement, the horses provided Findlay with more than just a job.
“I retired from the police force in 2015 with severe PTSD, and this place has been my sanctuary, it’s been my place where I am growing and actually getting over — you don’t ever get over PTSD, but the emotions numb after a while — and my horses do that for me,” he said.
“Horses have a way of wicking the emotions out of you … they have an ability that they kind of draw trauma out of you.”
Amid the devastation, there are bright spots.
Findlay’s family organized a GoFundMe campaign, which has raised much-needed funds to help care for the horses.
And the community was quick to offer support both during and after the disaster.
Strangers have offered them a place to stay. Community members with horse trailers rallied to help them evacuate the horses, never asking for financial compensation.
“Its insane the amount of outpouring of love and benevolence we’re getting. It’s just fantastic, it truly shows the true nature of people,” he told Global News.
“In my 23 years as a police officer, I lost faith in the human race, but man I’m telling you the human race can be damned good too.”
The fire also spared the ranch’s beloved pig Poomba, who has become something of a social media celebrity since the blaze.
“She was sitting in our paddock, the lower paddock, and I swear Mother Nature came in and said, ‘Not the pig,’ because there was an eye of a hurricane there that burned around her,” he said, adding the pig may have “Jedi powers.”
“The helicopter went in and airdropped her some granola bars because no one could get in there so … the first feeding was a helicopter dropping granola bars.”
Poomba escaped with second-degree burns, but sadly her sister, Miss Wilbur, did not survive the fire.
As the couple begins the difficult job of selling their horses, Findlay said he plans to hold on to at least a few of the animals he’s made a personal connection with, including his number one, Admiral.
He’s also thinking ahead to what rebuilding his life after the fire might look like.
“I want to get back,” he said.
“People are traumatized, so I’m kind of thinking my next avenue might be equine therapy, something like that.”
Around 200 homes are believed to have been destroyed by wildfire in the West Kelowna and Kelowna area, and as of Monday nearly 400 properties remained under evacuation orders in the area.
The McDougall Creek wildfire was last mapped at just under 14,000 hectares in size, and remains listed as out of control.
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