One in a ten-part series showcasing the volunteerism, community and resilience surrounding those evacuated due to the wildfires engulfing parts of the B.C. Interior.
As they wonder what’s lost and what will remain after the wildfires are tamed, one evacuee in Penticton has found solace through faith in her community.
100 Mile House evacuee Rebecca Johnson said she’s confident that when the community moves back into the area, whatever is lost will be rebuilt.
Johnson is one of 132 evacuees from various fires are making Penticton their temporary home after the regional district opened up its emergency social services centre last weekend.
Opening up the doors to the Penticton Community Centre gymnasium was the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen’s answer to a call for more beds after Williams Lake was ordered evacuated on Saturday. Now the city has set up around 400 cots, which line the concourse in the South Okanagan Events Centre.
That’s on top of dozens of beds open to housing evacuees in various motels and hotels — wherever rooms are available — throughout the city.
But Johnson has been in the city for over a week. She and her husband left 100 Mile House on July 7, after seeing a report that the B.C. Wildfire Service was seeing fires coming in faster than they could report them.
“My husband had injured himself and couldn’t walk and … and I’m disabled, so I thought it was probably wise just to get out of Dodge,” Johnson said, adding that they took nothing because of her disability and his injury.
“It felt like we were abandoning our community; that was probably the hardest thing. But we weren’t much help there in the condition we were in. So, that was the hardest thing was to leave the community before it had actually been evacuated,” she said.
100 Mile was evacuated within a day or two of their departure, and Johnson said she’s still in the dark about who has and who hasn’t been affected by the blaze near 100 Mile House, referred to the Gustafsen wildfire.
But that’s likely for the best, Johnson added. Keep energy on fighting the fires and tally up the losses in the end, she suggested.
“We’re people of faith, so we trust God, and we trust that, though it seems overwhelming, that everyone — the firefighters, the pilots, the volunteers — we trust that they are absolutely doing their very best for us. So, we’re really, really blessed and grateful,” she said, adding that a loss of a house in the community is a loss for everyone.
“Someone [who] taught your kids, or it’s your best friend’s cousin or, you know. It’s a small community. But we’re 100 Mile strong and we’ll support those that have lost what they’ve lost and we’ll pull together, I have no doubt.”
But the sense of community for evacuees doesn’t just stop at their physical community — in line for hours at the Kamloops evacuation centre, Johnson said she saw community and support form among strangers.
“You just look at them and they know and you know, and not a lot has to be explained. They’re all in the same place. Life’s turned upside down very quickly and they’re worried for their neighbours and themselves and their community,” she said.
She considered one evacuee in particular whom she and her husband met during their lengthy wait in Kamloops, who had been feeling weary from chemotherapy.
Johnson said she was a few hundred ahead of that man in the queue, but when she and her husband made note of the man’s situation to local staff, he was expedited through the queue.
“Most people are, even suffering like that, are waiting quietly for their turn, and it may be the next day or the day after,” Johnson said. “When you’re sick and stuff, the process needs to be speeded up.”
There’s no lack of gratitude for the work being done in Kamloops, where thousands of evacuees have flocked from the Thompson-Nicola and Cariboo regions.
“The volunteers were working their heinies off. Just really comforting, really encouraging. They were a really soft place to land; all the volunteers were doing an amazing job,” she said. “We were really grateful.”
Johnson said she came down to Penticton, knowing it was likely to be a long time before they would be able to go back home. Johnson said she has family in the area of Penticton, where she and her husband came early last week.
With any luck, Johnson’s stay in Penticton may not last — Monday evening, Cariboo Regional District and 100 Mile authorities said they are reviewing the evacuation order for the area.
For now, Johnson said there’s little information out there as to what has actually been lost and what remains in the community.
“Right now, we just need to take it one day at a time and get through, and they’re busy,” she said.
“They’ll give accurate information about what’s been lost when they can, and we have to trust that, too. They are doing their very best.”