On a smoky Saturday morning as ash fell from the sky, Kelly Lynn and her husband pulled in to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc powwow grounds in Kamloops, their pickup truck raising a cloud of dust in its wake.
After checking with a volunteer at the site, which opened on Friday to evacuees displaced by several fires in the region, Ms. Lynn retrieved several bags stuffed with clothes, shoes and toiletries from the back seat, leaving them for whoever may need them.
Ms. Lynn knew she wanted to help out as soon as she heard that a fire had destroyed the village of Lytton, B.C. – a feeling that was only reinforced when lightning sparked a fire in the Juniper Ridge and Valleyview neighbourhoods in Kamloops on Thursday night, the blaze coming mere minutes from her home before shifting direction.
“We have to restore faith in humanity,” Ms. Lynn said. “COVID, I think, it affected a lot of people negatively and we have to bring back positivity. These people have lost everything. I almost felt like I was going to lose my home, so I feel even closer to them knowing that that could have happened to me.”
Amid a week of record-breaking heat that sparked dozens of fires and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of British Columbians, communities have banded together to support one another. Local businesses have donated truckloads of food, water and animal supplies, while individuals like Ms. Lynn have arrived at evacuee reception centres in a constant stream to give over what items they could spare.
On Saturday, the BC government’s Wildfire Dashboard showed 175 active fires, up from 136 the day before. There were eight fires considered to be “of note” because of their proximity to people or property, and dozens of evacuations orders and alerts were in place.
A spokesperson for the BC Wildfire Service said they would have details on Monday about how many firefighters are deployed in the province.
The Canadian Forces has sent a Hercules transport plane and helicopters to help move people and supplies in the area, and 350 Forces members remain on standby in Edmonton to help if needed.
The BC Coroners Office was investigating reports of two deaths after the Lytton fire on Wednesday, but had been delayed in getting to the scene because of unsafe conditions in the area. While the office is investigating a spike in deaths believed to be related to the extreme heat, no other deaths or missing people have been publicly reported in relation to the fires.
Meanwhile, the Lytton fire continued to spread, and by Saturday was 83 square kilometres in size. Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the BC Wildfire Service, said 1,000 square kilometres could burn throughout the province by the end of the weekend. The cause of the Lytton fire remains under investigation..
On Friday night, an evacuation order issued by the Skeetchestn Indian Band, as the Sparks Lake wildfire approached, sent about 300 more people 65 kilometres east to join Lytton evacuees in Kamloops.
Darcy Deneault’s family, which had to flee from the 2017 Elephant Hill fire, one of the most devastating wildfires in B.C.’s history, had packed several days in advance, anticipating what was to come.
“We know the drill by now,” said Mr. Deneault, who sat in a camping chair alongside his wife and mother at an evacuee reception centre in Kamloops on Saturday, as his young children played with toys.
“We live in a valley and the fire was just cresting over the ridge right there – it was visible – and once the fire got up there, that’s when everybody knew we had to go.”
Mr. Deneault’s wife, Lorelei Dick, said she was most grateful for the efforts of firefighters, volunteers and donors.
“They are so important,” said Ms. Dick, who retrieved a few pillows and breakfast items from a donation table set up in the parking lot of the reception centre. “When you’ve evacuated and you just come out with the stuff that you have, you’re not thinking about diapers or formula. The donations help a lot.”
Adam Smolcic, co-founder of the private BC Wildfire Support group, said his organization supplies firefighters as well as evacuees with needed items and aims to do that within a couple of hours of an evacuation order. It offers food, tents, clothing, gas cards and some cash as needed.
“People are so grateful, absolutely,” he said, speaking to The Globe and Mail in Kamloops on Saturday. “When you’ve left your house and don’t know what you’re going to do, it’s very, very stressful. Just to have some food in your belly, or some colouring books to keep your kids from screaming, it seems like it’s been a huge thing for people here, which has been a pleasure to do for them.”
Thirty-five kilometres northeast of Lytton, in the community of Spences Bridge, the Packing House restaurant closed its doors to the public on Saturday to feed 75 firefighters battling the blazes, along with a number of other emergency personnel. A handful of staffers prepared cookies and sandwiches on homemade bread for lunch, and beef stroganoff with garlic toast and salad for dinner.
“These guys have no idea the treat they’re in for tonight,” said Steve Rice, who owns and operates the restaurant, which is connected to the post office in the town of about 100 people. His wife, Paulet, both cooks at the Packing House and works at the post office (and also sings to her customers during dinner).
Mr. Rice, who is also director of Area 1 of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said he lives for community.
“My mom raised me that way, to help other people,” he said. “These are not normal times. We’ve been in a pandemic, mental [illness] is at the highest level it’s been in a long time. These guys have been in a pandemic, too, you know.”
ANDREA WOO AND JANA G. PRUDEN
The Globe and Mail, July 3, 2021