As seen in The Province by Dan Fumano, 22nd May 2016.
The first time Angela Ramos travelled Burma Road, she was shocked to see all the crosses.
Ramos had never heard of the gravel road, or the mudflats to which it leads, until the rainy night in March when her daughter was a passenger in a Nissan Sentra that veered off the roadway and fell five metres down an embankment.
Lidia Ramos-Fincaryk, who loved Latin music and wanted to be a lawyer one day, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. It was five days before her 16th birthday.
Angela had been planning a sweet 16 party for Lidia at the new Surrey home they had moved into the week before. Instead, family and friends were suddenly raising money to cover funeral costs and organizing a candlelight vigil to mark her birthday.
They set up a memorial off Burma Road, beside the tree where the car came to rest on its side that night.
When Angela Ramos rode along the gravel road to her daughter’s memorial, she said aloud to fellow mourners: “Are you kidding me? Look at all of these crosses!”
“I think I lost count after nine,” Ramos said last week. “I was not prepared to see the amount of souls that were taken.”
The night of March 5, Lidia, a Langley high school student, had been at a party with friends on the mudflats of Stave Lake West, about 20 kilometres north of downtown Mission.
Her mother had lived in the Fraser Valley for decades, but had never heard of Stave Lake. In the weeks since her daughter’s death, she’s learned about its reputation.
“Next month, school’s out,” she said. “And I am petrified that I would turn on the TV, or one of my family members would phone me and say: ‘Ange, it happened again: Stave Lake.’ That’s what I’m petrified of.”
The grieving mom pleads with other Lower Mainland residents who visit the popular recreation area at Stave to drive carefully and travel in an appropriate, four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“I want to make sure everybody understands: Go and have a good time, but make sure you come back home.”
A culture of recklessness
The District of Mission describes the area as a “breathtaking expanse of mountainous forested land” with “groves of second growth rainforest, beautiful waterfalls and streams.”
But Stave Lake has also become synonymous with ATVs, shotguns and recklessness.
Now, facing the always busy May long weekend, the start of grad-party season and the summer months ahead, police are cracking down at Stave to combat the reputation it has earned over the decades as “a place where lawlessness abounds,” said RCMP Insp. Ted De Jager.
That means more than just writing tickets, local Mounties say. They’re trying to change a culture.
Riding in a Mission RCMP pickup on the Stave West mudflats last week, Sgt. Shaun Wright said: “With the illegal and dangerous behaviour that’s occurred up here over the years, really there’s a culture that’s developed.
“And there’s a phrase that you’ll hear from a lot of people up here: ‘Anything goes at Stave Lake.’ And that’s really the culture that needs to change up here.”
From the driver’s seat, Insp. De Jager, Wright’s commanding officer at the Mission RCMP detachment, added: “It goes back, I would say, decades. People often will talk about the good old days when they were up here … ‘The good old days where the police never bothered us and we could do whatever we want.’
“Well, those days are long gone. This is a place for families, and a place for everybody to enjoy — not just people who feel like they have some sort of entitlement to break the rules and break the law in this area. And that’s what we’re cracking down on this summer. The intent is to make it safe for everyone.”
During rowdy parties on the mudflats, ATVs and jacked-up trucks roar around among hundreds of partygoers and bonfires made of piled-up pallets.
Along Burma Road, signs reading “YIELD TO ONCOMING TRAFFIC” are riddled with bullet holes made by shooters leaning out of car windows as they travel the busy roadway.
Around the lake, police regularly find burnt-out and abandoned stolen cars. Earlier this spring, a hazmat team removed the debris from a dismantled meth lab.
In late March, there was a more grisly discovery.
A family riding along Burma Road in an off-road vehicle noticed an unattended fire in a burn pit. The father, aware of the campfire ban in place, stopped to extinguish the blaze. He called police when he saw what was burning: human remains.
The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team took over the file and a Burnaby man was later charged with second-degree murder and indignity to a body.
A roadside memorial now marks the scene, identifying the deceased as a 28-year-old woman, “a daughter, a sister, and a mother.”
As forestry roads go, Burma Road, which is B.C.’s highest-traffic forest service road, is well-maintained.
But when it’s dry, it’s so dusty that visibility can be impaired to the point where it feels like driving through a blizzard. And when it rains, Burma Road can quickly become muddy, slick and dangerous, as it was the weekend Lidia was killed.
Between car crashes and ATV rollovers, there are a couple of deaths and several serious injuries every summer at Stave Lake, say police.
It’s only thanks to dumb luck that there have been no deaths from reckless firearm use around Stave, said De Jager.
“When I say to people, there’s a place (on the east side of Stave Lake) that’s nicknamed ‘Little Iraq’ and you can step out of this truck and not touch gravel because you’ll be standing on all the shotgun shells and the empty casings from rifles, people don’t believe me, until they actually go there,” he said.
“People really let go (at Stave). It’s almost counter-culture. They feel like they’re out in the middle of nowhere so none of the rules apply.”
De Jager described a disturbing, “alcohol-fuelled” incident on May 8 at an annual “Mudders Day” gathering that drew hundreds to the flats.
That afternoon, patrolling officers stopped an ATV rider for not wearing a helmet. The man tried to flee on the mudflats to avoid being ticketed. After the Mounties apprehended him, dozens of people in the crowd turned on the cops.
“We got surrounded,” said De Jager. “They wanted us to let him go … He was lawfully arrested, but unfortunately they didn’t see it that way.”
A crowd of around 40 people gathered, many of whom surrounded the five uniformed officers trying to arrest the man, and blocked their three marked police vehicles.
“It was volatile,” said De Jager, who was patrolling that afternoon on an RCMP ATV.
“I wouldn’t call it a riot, but when people get that belligerent that they’re trying to intimidate the police … it’s a bit of a hair trigger.”
The Mounties were able to extricate themselves peacefully from the situation. The man, a Pitt Meadows resident, was taken into custody and is facing charges of obstruction and flight from a peace officer.
There’s something about the setting, De Jager said, that emboldened the crowd to behave in a way they would not attempt 20 minutes away in downtown Mission.
“It’s that attitude that ‘we don’t want to be burdened by the rules of society or the rules of the road,’” said De Jager.
Escape from the city
Some Stave regulars say while the mudflat parties might seem wild to the uninitiated, the unregulated atmosphere is part of its appeal.
“Historically, activity around Stave Lake has been largely left unregulated, which is very desirable to a great many people who want to escape the stifling environment of the city,” said Kim Reeves, president of the Four Wheel Drive Association of B.C.”
Longtime Stave visitors and police alike say the mudflats have become significantly busier in the last decade due to the closure of other outdoor recreation areas and a growing population in the region.
But even with Stave drawing bigger crowds in recent years, Reeves believes it has grown “less wild.”
“The atmosphere at Stave is always very upbeat,” said Reeves, whose association conducts annual cleanups of Stave West and has removed more than 130 tonnes of garbage and steel from the area over the past 15 years. “The vast majority of motorized recreationalists at Stave are hard-working family people who love to play as hard as they work.”
Michael Boronowski, the District of Mission’s manager of civic engagement, said the Four Wheel Drive Association is a “phenomenal organization with great members … but along with responsible users, you have reckless users and people aren’t part of the association who come up.”
That’s where the problems and dangers often start, said Boronowski, and something has to change.
The Mounties’ recent efforts to crack down on the mudflats mayhem are part of a broader effort to transform the area into a family-friendly destination.
The Stave West Master Plan, a joint project by the District of Mission, the provincial government and local First Nations, is in its first year of implementation.
The 203-page plan, published in June 2015, is a 10-year vision to “transform this 50-square-kilometer area into one of the Lower Mainland’s most popular recreation and learning destinations.” It includes plans to add facilities for mountain biking, freshwater scuba diving, camping sites and boating, as well as opportunities for forestry training and the protection of heritage and archaeological sites.
But for now, said Boronowski, “Safety and security is the biggest concern, and that is what keeps families away at the moment.
“I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else. To see hundreds of people, and multiple fires, and vehicles cruising all over the place.
“Sometimes it is absolutely out of control and unsafe … It’s a serious issue, and I don’t want to make light of it, but it feels sometimes like you are working on the border of a Mad Max movie.
“You talk to any parent of a kid near graduation from high school in Mission, and they will talk about how they’re worried that their kids are going to go up there.
“This year, we’ve had a fatality already and our concern is that we’ll have another fatality and won’t have taken the right steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Boronowski said that as a father of three, he was “really happy” to be one of the leads working on the Stave West Master Plan.
His eldest child is six years old now. By the time she celebrates her sweet 16 a decade from now, he wants Stave West to be a safe, welcoming place where he won’t be afraid for her to go canoeing and hiking.
The transformation won’t happen overnight and will encounter plenty of pushback, he said. “But if we don’t have another teenager die every year in the area, any amount of work is worth it for that.”
Last Sunday, up on a rocky ridge north of the mudflats near the boundary between the District of Mission and provincial Crown land, the Mounties pulled over and got out of their truck to walk around. A local man approached and struck up a conversation with Wright.
“I appreciate having you guys around, that’s for sure,” said Mission resident Mike Shearme, out for a walk with his young son, Winston.
“It’s nice knowing you can get out of the truck and go for a walk. It’s gotten better.
“Most of my friends that live in Mission, we’ll come out here, but it’s our backyard. We don’t want this crap here,” said Shearme, indicating a burnt-out log at the road’s edge beside a pile of empty beer cans and shotgun shells.
“Sometimes you just need a place to go out and have some fun — but as long as it’s safe,” Shearme told The Province.
“When I see them around,” he said, gesturing to the Mounties, “when I see them at the gate, I feel safe enough to bring my young son out.”
Concerns over teens partying in backcountry
Youth safety is a concern all over the Lower Mainland as the end of the school year approaches.
Abbotsford police spokesman Const. Ian MacDonald said “large congregations” of young people sometimes “go to remote areas of Abbotsford, either down by the river, or sometimes up the mountains.”
MacDonald described one large gathering last summer.
“There was one incident, that I think ended up even on YouTube, where a police helicopter had to come in. We had to take some 4x4s up the mountain off Columbia Valley and actually disperse a large gathering of partygoers, probably close to 800,” MacDonald said.
“These parties also tend to include bonfires, and with drier weather conditions … you could also be creating a fire that goes on and on and takes a lot of resources to put out.”
MacDonald said the remote locations of these parties is both a lure and a danger.
“People go there because it’s remote and difficult to get to, not thinking that if something goes sideways, of course, first responders are going to have that same difficulty getting there.”
Last summer, from June to September, Delta police dealt with 147 calls related to gatherings of young people, averaging more than 11 calls a week, said spokeswoman Acting Sgt. Sarah Swallow.
“I can certainly say, anecdotally and from experience, the Watershed Park is always a big one for us,” Swallow said, referring to the popular hiking and mountain-biking spot in the east of the city.
Swallow, who grew up in Langley, said in her school days, kids often hung out at a spot called Stokes Pit near the Langley-Surrey border.
She still remembers the names of Heidi Klompas and Ashley Reber, a pair of teenagers who died in September 1997 after being struck by a car at Stokes Pit.
Stokes Pit is less of a youth hangout recently, as the area has become “quite industrialized now compared to years ago,” said Surrey RCMP spokesman Cpl. Scotty Schumann.
Kids still sometimes converge in outdoor areas of Surrey, including Crescent Beach and 1001 Steps, but “it is mainly house parties that keep us busy on weekends,” said Schumann.