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Monte Lake, B.C. resident loses Wayne Gretzky rookie card in wildfire

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Robert Hugh of Monte Lake, B.C., so prized his Wayne Gretzky rookie card that he bought a fireproof safe to store it in.

So earlier this month, when the White Rock Lake wildfire prompted an evacuation order as it tore through the community, Hugh and his wife packed up their car and left the card behind — counting on the six-month-old box to keep it safe.

It didn’t.

“I got to enjoy Wayne for many, many years. Some things we just don’t get rid of in our lives up until we’re forced to,” Hugh said. “Poor Wayne. He got burned up.”

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The wildfire ripped through Hugh’s property, destroying much of the square kilometre it takes up. It levelled the house and took the not-so-fireproof safe along with it.

Hugh had the card with him for 25 years, and also had a number of opportunities to sell it, he said.

Earlier this year, a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card was sold to an anonymous buyer for $4.69 million, though Hugh’s card likely wouldn’t have fetched that sum.

“Well, it wasn’t in that good a condition, but you know it was certainly worth a lot more than I thought it was worth at one time,” Hugh said with a chuckle.

He is hoping he can get back the $400 he paid for the box.

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But there are other things that Hugh said were saved and put a smile on his face.

He found his 12-year-old black cat, Scratch, was alive and doing well when he came back to take a tour of what remained of his home on Saturday.

“He was just sitting here, waiting like nothing happened.”

Hugh said officials from the Thompson-Nicola Regional District left food and water for the kitty, so he got attention and was well looked-after.

He described his emotions since the start of the fire about a week ago as a “roller-coaster” alternating with being sad for his own loss and that of his neighbours.

“I came back to find that some things I thought would be burned up weren’t burned up,” he said.

“So you know, in every situation there is a silver lining. Sometimes it’s difficult to look for it but, but here it is. My cat is still alive.”

He remembered the morning the fire came in as being a “beautiful” and “sunny day” although he could see tongues of flames in the distance and hear the roar of helicopters above as they tried to extinguish them.

“Then the wind picked up and debris started flying around.”

Within minutes, he said the fire was in their community and he and his wife had to flee. They were prepared to evacuate.

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The couple moved into Quail Lodge, Kamloops, which is about a half-hour drive from their home.

He remained in his home during the 2017 wildfires and was happy with the government’s response then. He had hoped officials would have a similar strategy this year too.

He said he didn’t like what he characterized as the province’s paternalistic approach this time around, refusing to let residents stay and help battle the fires.

The BC Wildfire Service said it is preparing for a potential increase in lightning strikes and shifting winds as cooler weather is forecast over the next few days.

Fire information officer Erika Berg said the shift in temperatures is forecast to start on Sunday evening, possibly also bringing pyrocumulonimbus clouds in the southern region that usually cause their own weather systems, including an increase in lightning.

Thunderstorms are most likely to be seen in northern British Columbia, including the Fort Nelson and Cariboofire centres, with a chance of increase in lightning strikes which can potentially cause more wildfires, she said.

Gusty, shifting winds are also forecast for large stretches of the province, noting they too may cause an increase in size and intensity of fires, she said.

The service has been conducting prescribed burns on some of the larger blazes such as the White Rock Lake, Tremont Creek and Flat Lake wildfires to prepare for a potential increase in lightning strikes, Berg said.

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Late Saturday night the Thompson-Nicola Regional District Emergency Operations Centre issued an evacuation order for 117 properties in the Paska Lake area due to the Tremont Creek fire.

B.C. currently has more than 270 active wildfires and more than 6,700 square kilometres of area scorched by blazes.

Heat warnings are in effect for several parts of southern B.C. including East Vancouver and Southern Gulf Islands, Fraser Valley, North Thompson and Whistler where the mercury is forecast to touch the mid-to-high 30s.

Hugh coughed as he described his hometown.

The place, he said has an “apocalyptic” and “eerie” look.

“It’s really, really smoky and everything’s burned out. I can’t see two feet ahead,” he said.

“I’ve never been in a war zone, but I would assume this is what it would look like.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2021.

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