Red tape slowing wildfire recovery in B.C.’s Gun Lake: residents

Charles Evans’s cabin at Gun Lake was once an old mining office, according to what the Penticton man was told. 

It dated back to the 1950s, was dragged across the frozen lake during winter decades ago, and plopped onto the property he purchased in 2019 in B.C.’s Sea-to-Sky region.

It and over 50 other properties were partially or completely burned by the Downton Lake wildfire in the summer of 2023.

“We were like, well, OK, that’s how it goes,” Evans said of his family’s mood after learning their cabin had been completely destroyed by the flames. “We have insurance… we’ll figure it out. You know? It can’t be that hard.”

A photo of Charles Evans’s cabin prior to the fire. Evans said he was months away from completing major work on the cabin. (Submitted by Charles Evans)

As Evans found out, however, it has been “that hard,” as he continues to face issues with rebuilding his beloved summer home.

Those familiar with the aftermath of the Downton Lake wildfire say others have faced frustration as well, especially when rebuilding homes that are well out-of-date in terms of building codes.

One homebuilder says it’s becoming a familiar facet of B.C.’s recent destructive wildfire seasons.

Evans blames confusing rules from the province and Squamish-Lillooet Regional District for making the process harder than it had to be.

The ruins of a cabin on a lake are barely standing amidst scorched trees.
A photo of Charles Evans’s cabin after it was destroyed by wildfire. (Submitted by Charles Evans)

For instance, he claims, officials have been unclear about how close to the lakefront his new cabin could be.

He said he waited eight months before being given permission to clear debris. He said he was told he’d need to hire an environmental consultant, paid $3,500 for that consultant, then was told the consultant wasn’t necessary after all.

“I don’t like hearing myself saying, well, the rules should be special for us, but we’re not trying to build a condo complex,” Evans said.

Evans explained his insurance is only covering a portion of the project. He estimates cleaning up and building an up-to-code cabin will cost about $450,000 to $550,000 out of pocket. 

It might impact retirement plans for him and his wife, he said, but believes the alternative is having a burned-out plot of land with little future resale value.

Smoke rise from a hilltop next to a lake.
The Downton Lake wildfire was sparked by lightning on July 13, 2023. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Fire destroyed 56 properties

The Downton Lake fire sparked in July 2023 and burned through steep, wooded terrain at the western end of Gun Lake, northwest of Whistler, before flaring up and engulfing cabins. People in the area were ordered to evacuate. The intense blaze even sparked a fire tornado.

The chair of the regional district, Jen Ford, said the fire destroyed 56 properties. Four belonged to full-time residents, and the rest were seasonal properties like Evans’s.

About half of the cabins lost at Gun Lake are decades old, according to full-time resident Debbie Demare.

Demare is a former regional district director helping those who’ve lost structures. Her home is still standing, and she says some homes in the area have been handed down through generations.

Photo of a 'fire tornado' near Gun Lake, B.C.
Footage of a ‘fire tornado’ was captured by firefighters near the area of Gun Lake, B.C. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Jason McLean has been camping in that area with his family since the 1980s. Around the turn of the 21st century, he and his brother bought a property there.

McLean’s family company, the McLean Group, owns several helicopter companies, including TyaX Adventures, which is based near Gun Lake, and Blackcomb Helicopters, which was contracted to help fight the fire that tore through the community.

Flames rise from a forested hilltop next to a picturesque lake.
The Downton Lake fire led to evacuation orders for properties around Gun Lake. (Submitted by Dr. Renata Lewis)

Two of his companies are donating $200,000 to help uninsured and underinsured properties deal with asbestos removal as part of any rebuild.

“If you’ve got asbestos or other hazardous materials … it can be kind of a crushing, memory-ending, dream-ending scenario for a family,” McLean said.

He added that many of the cabin owners he knows are seniors, grandchildren or “cousin consortiums” whose cabins have great sentimental value.

‘Costly measures’

Regional district chair Jen Ford says she understands frustrations from property owners. District staff, she added, are trying to help and seek exemptions to some provincial requirements.

One issue she has heard about is that cabins close to the lake’s edge now need to be built further back.

“Many of these properties were built a very long time ago … we know more 1720101719 than we did about water impacts,” Ford said. 

Maegan Thomson, senior project adviser with Linwood Homes, says she has seen other property owners elsewhere in B.C. face sticker shock after their older home has burned down and they realize what modern regulations demand.

“Many people had very simple structures, no insulation, no proper heat source, no cooling source,” Thomson said. “You now cannot build a new home without a cooling source. Those are costly measures.”

The provincial Emergency Management Ministry says it’s working to help people rebuild after the wildfire and has provided funds to the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District

The ministry says it is identifying barriers to rebuilding and has provided updated guidance on cleaning up debris at lakefront areas. 

“Having insurance can facilitate timely and efficient rebuilding,” a spokesperson wrote.

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