'All you can do is sit and hope:' Thousands in B.C. know what it's like to flee their homes due to wildfires, floods


While B.C. is improving how it manages and supports evacuees, it can’t extinguish the fear and anxiety that comes with fleeing one’s home.

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Julie Turner had 20 minutes to pack up and get out.

As fire raced over the dry hills above her home, Turner and her husband grabbed clothes, documents and photos, and an urn containing their late cat’s ashes.

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They drove to their friends’ house on the opposite side of Osoyoos Lake and watched from the deck as flames descended from the charcoal mountains like lava.

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“At times I felt absolutely numb, then panic would rise up again,” she said.

Their friends understood. They had been evacuated two years ago when fire threatened their home on Anarchist Mountain. They had stayed with the Turners for several days before being able to return.

Across B.C., 530 people were under evacuation orders as of Wednesday, with 9,500 more on alert — an experience tens of thousands of British Columbians can identify with after several terrible wildfire seasons during the past decade.

The B.C. government has improved the tracking of evacuees since 2021, a year marked by several emergencies, including the wildfire that destroyed Lytton and a so-called “atmospheric river” that caused flooding in parts of Abbotsford, Merritt and Princeton.

The Evacuee Registration and Assistance Tool has been digitized so evacuees can register for support online, while money for food and lodging can be e-transfered, said Chrissy Oliver, executive-director of provincial response programs for the Ministry of Emergency Management. The system also allows the government to see in “real time” how many people need help.

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Oliver said the government has been working to learn from past emergencies and do more advance planning.

“You can’t deny there has been an increase in complexity, number and duration of emergency events,” Oliver said.

Donnie Creek wildfire
The Donnie Creek wildfire in northeast B.C. is the largest in the province’s history. Photo by B.C. Wildfire Service

But while B.C. is improving how it manages and supports evacuees, it can’t extinguish the fear and anxiety that comes with fleeing one’s home.

The EmergencyInfoBC website lists 14 regional districts and municipalities and 14 First Nations that currently have an evacuation alert or order in place for some properties.

“This is a really difficult time for everyone — if you’re evacuated, or you live near the area, or you have an attachment to the place,” said Jen Ford, chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, where two fires are threatening homes.

“It’s very personal for a lot of people right now.”

downton lake fire
The Downton Lake wildfire northwest of Whistler. Photo by HO /THE CANADIAN PRESS

As of late Wednesday, the regional district expanded an evacuation alert for communities impacted by the Downton Lake fire burning north of Whistler, which has destroyed several structures. About 220 people remain on evacuation order near Gun Lake and Lajoie Lake.

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Not since the Gold Rush have beds in nearby Gold Bridge been in such demand.

“It’s all been pretty sudden,” said Billy Watts, owner of the Gold Dust Motel, where all the beds were taken by firefighters and a helicopter refueling crew. “I think it’s still sinking in for most people.”

In choking smoke, he was fixing up an old house for a group of five evacuees.

A block away, at the Gold Bridge Hotel, firefighters have taken all the beds — as well as available floor space — while the community association parking lot has become a de facto campground for evacuees with recreational vehicles.

Gold Bridge owner Peter Kimber and his staff have been cooking day and night to keep both fire crews and evacuees fed.

“We’re doing everything we can to take care of everyone,” he said.

Many evacuees feel powerless. “It’s hard because all you can do is sit and hope.”

Watts said people deal with the uncertainty in different ways, with fear, sometimes anger and numbness common.

Oliver said the Ministry of Emergency Management works with the Provincial Health Services Association to deploy mental health supports to communities impacted by emergencies.

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In an interview posted online in 2017, a year when 65,000 British Columbians were evacuated due to wildfires, University of B.C. psychiatry professor Steven Taylor said “complex factors,” including the nature of the loss, degree of disruption, aftermath, and a person’s age and their level of psychological adjustment, affect how people deal with being evacuated and losses.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a possibility for people who perceived that their lives, or the lives of loved ones, were in acute danger,” he said in the interview posted on a UBC news site. “However, most people are resilient to stress and do not develop PTSD.”

Taylor said substance abuse and marital or family conflict are also “potential consequences of a serious stressor such as a major forest fire, especially in people who have pre-existing issues.”

adams lake fire
The Lower East Adams Lake wildfire east of Kamloops. It’s the latest B.C. wildfire to threaten properties, with evacuation orders and alerts upgraded as the fire flares. Photo by HO /THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers tips for people coping through a natural disaster emergency, including taking care of basics such as eating and sleeping, talking to others about feelings, and getting back to a daily routine.

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Turner was returning to routine on Thursday, several days after the evacuation order was lifted for her neighbourhood in Osoyoos. She has taken the advice of her sister-in-law, who had her own brush with a wildfire near Vernon several years ago, and has created a packing list for emergencies.

“We’re very grateful we have a home to go back to,” she said. “And we’re grateful to the firefighters. They were on scene all through the night, and we’re just so grateful.”

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