The community of ranchers, farmhands and back-to-the-landers that call the rugged country of B.C.'s Chilcotins home can be a hard circle to break into.
Frontier country through and through, not much has changed since the days of the Cariboo gold rush — and the locals are still notoriously wary of newcomers.
With little farming experience to his name, Randy Jones falls neatly into that latter category. Six months ago, the co-owner of Pemberton's favourite burger joint, the Mile One Eating House, purchased a historic cattle ranch to raise beef in the Hanceville-Alexis Creek area. And when wildfire threatened the 259-hectare property, it soon became apparent that Jones can no longer be considered an outsider.
"Regardless of the damages incurred to date, what has absolutely brought me to tears is the unwavering depth of support and compassion shown by this tight community," wrote Jones in a heartfelt Facebook message after burgeoning flames caused damage to his property earlier this month. "Neighbours and friends that are new to me have stepped in like I have known them for decades. Handshakes are replaced with hugs from the burliest of cowboys, complete strangers trying to help me find a missing family member, seeing 20+ work trucks parked on our property all with crews trying to help."
The devastating Hanceville wildfire has, at last check, grown to more than 130,000 ha., and with government resources already stretched thin with dozens of fires burning across the province, much of the early firefighting efforts were left to the residents who make up the isolated, rural community.
"The first 24 to 48 hours of the whole thing happened so incredibly fast. People you had contact with were no longer in contact," Jones recalled in a follow-up interview, referencing how he lost touch with his father briefly in the fire's immediate aftermath.
"The neighbours up there, the ranchers, the First Nation community and the people who generally live in the area ... the way they pulled together was absolutely unbelievable," he added. "I can say for a fact that we did not lose more land or infrastructure because of the way the community pulled together to support one another and be in the right place at the right time."
Thanks to the quick action of his fellow neighbours, coupled with some "amazing luck," Jones said the damage was relatively minor: the flames scorched a hayfield, and several livestock fences on the property suffered damage as well.
"I kept saying my luck was going to run out here at some point in time, because we would discover something on or close to a property that was going to become a big issue. I'd run to make a quick phone call to a neighbour and they'd already be coming down the driveway," said Jones.
Jones made the call to close Mile One for lunch on weekdays in the aftermath of the fire because he wanted to lend a hand to the tightknit community that was so quick to help him when he needed it most. The restaurant is now back to regular hours.
"We could've just turned tail and just let (the fire) work its way through and hope for the best, but that's not really my personality. If I have neighbours on my property actively fighting fires so things don't get worse, I'm going to try to help," he explained.
"Our neighbours and our interests up there are more important than three half-days of business (in Pemberton)."
Although the wildfire is mostly under control at this point, Jones stressed there are still properties in the area contending with the expanding flames, which he expects to burn at least until "snow hits the ground." It's also part of the reason Jones is reluctant to accept support from the Mile One community.
"We were fortunate enough as a business to be able to acquire that property and fulfill some of the things I want to do in my working career. This is not a situation of someone losing their home or livelihood, or worse, being harmed or injured," he said. "We are very fortunate to be able to do this in our business and have that, so it's almost a luxury to some extent — a bit of a pain-in-the-ass luxury right now — but to say that somebody should feel bad for us, absolutely not."
Ever the optimist, Jones managed to find a silver lining to the plumes of smoke that have left a thick haze throughout the Chilcotins.
"The positive of all this is, as a chef, I'm looking forward to morel mushroom season because morel mushrooms love old fire grounds," he said with a laugh.