Tumbler Ridge doctor Charles Helm used to look forward to summer. Now, he dreads it because of wildfires.
Dr. Charles Helm is safe at home in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., this week after a wildfire forced him and his wife to flee.
“Any community that gets threatened by wildfires, it’s a tragedy, and everyone is very stressed, and it’s horrible,” said Helm, a semi-retired physician who has lived in the town for 28 years and has written a handful of books about its history.
“You can’t exaggerate how terrible it is.”
Evacuation orders for the District of Tumbler Ridge, a town of about 2,500 people in the foothills of the Rockies and about an hour’s drive south of Dawson Creek, were downgraded to evacuation alerts on Thursday.
Residents like Helm have to remain ready to leave at a moment’s notice lest the winds shift and fan the flames of the West Kiskatinaw River wildfire back toward town. But with rain in the forecast for Sunday and Monday, hope is on the horizon.
Keeping watch for wildfires that could destroy entire communities is the new seasonal norm for residents like Helm in Tumbler Ridge, as well as many other communities across B.C.
“Every year, it’s like Russian roulette: which is the town that’s going to have the hardest hit this year,” he said.
Like other residents of Tumbler Ridge, Helm hopes wildfires will spare the picturesque municipality with a rich geological history that avoided becoming a ghost town and instead offers a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and amateur paleontologists alike.
From mining to backcountry mecca
Tumbler Ridge is the site of one of five of Canada’s Geoparks, a UNESCO designation for areas of internationally significant geology, geography, or human history that relates to Earth.
The Geopark designation was awarded in 2015, 15 years after two boys discovered dinosaur tracks while they were out hiking. One of those boys was Helm’s son, who was eight at the time.
Manda Maggs, executive director of the Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark, says the designation was a game-changer for the district, which was incorporated in 1981 as a mining town for metallurgical coal to make steel.
The timing couldn’t be better. Like many mining towns, Tumbler Ridge suffered from many a boom and bust cycle, and it was facing a strong possibility of becoming a ghost town.
Rather than die a quiet death, Tumbler Ridge quickly gained a reputation as a backcountry mecca with gorgeous terrain that provides a bounty of opportunities for outdoor recreation.
“People aren’t just moving there because they got a job at the mine,” Maggs said.
“They’re moving there because they can work remotely, and they want access to all these backcountry trails.”
The area is so scenic, in fact, that in 2019, HBO used it as a backdrop for one of six thrones that it stashed around the world to promote the last season of Games of Thrones.
The one in Tumbler Ridge was the only one in North America.
As a bonus, anyone exploring the nearby area has a pretty good chance of stumbling upon a paleontological artifact.
“There’s so little paleontology work that’s been done in the area,” she said. “We know that the best fossils haven’t yet been found.”
Maggs says the area is home to more than half of the world’s tyrannosaurid trackway — footprints left in the sand. There are also crocodilian and Parasaur tracks and actual fossils.
The area’s geology is so rich with historical artifacts that Helm, the town physician, has shifted his career focus from medicine to focus more on paleontology.
He hopes to continue his work but worries about the future, given that each summer seems to bring some form of wildfire scare now.
“I dread summer these days. I don’t look forward to it like I used to,” he said. “It’s very worrisome, and it does seem to be getting worse.”
This story has been clarified to say Tumbler Ridge offers a paradise for amateur paleontologists, not amateur archaeologists, and that visitors have a good chance of stumbling upon paleontological artifacts, rather than archaeological artifacts.Jun 17, 2023 2:51 PM PT
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Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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