It started out as a normal Thursday morning. I drove my partner John to the airport for deployment to the Northwest Territories in his role as a trauma counsellor. By that evening, I had one-way a plane ticket to Toronto for first-thing in the morning, a pre-emptive choice to escape the growing threat of the McDougall Creek wildfire, now visible from our living room window. “Fly to TO and we’ll sort out when you fly back once we know more,” John had told me.
It was not going to be that simple, however (and to suggest that was simple is, in and of itself, an impressive understatement)
Life changes fast.
Our evacuation order came first thing the next morning. The fire had jumped the lake (previously contained on the west side of Lake Okanagan) and was now an immediate threat to our neighbourhood and many more on the east side of the lake. I had no sooner arrived at the airport than Kelowna airspace was closed to all non-emergency aircraft, and the airport was closed. Things were happening fast… On to Plan B.
I had been dropped off at the airport by a neighbour, so I grabbed a taxi back home to regroup as quickly as possible. Since events the day before had escalated quickly, I had already followed instructions on the FireSmartBC website to prepare the outside of our home and had also collected all of our critical documents, including them in the baggage I took to the airport. That part, in comparison, was easy. What I had to do now, was decide what, from what was left in our home, was I going to load into our car, and take with me as I evacuated.
This was the hard part…
This was, or so it felt, me playing judge and jury. It was up to me to determine which of our memories, made ‘real’ through our collection of art and artifacts from our travels, from our lives, would survive. Which would I bring and which would I leave behind, to perhaps never see again?
The weight of these choices made it feel like I was walking through sludge as I moved from room to room choosing this not that. This picture of John’s mother, not that book purchased on my first visit to Paris. This sculpture, not that university degree. This toy my son had as a child, not that jewelry box that belonged to my mother. Would John ever forgive me for leaving something of his behind, not knowing the sentimental pricelessness it represented? Would I?
“It’s just stuff”
“It’s just stuff.” That’s what my neighbour said as we bade farewell to each other and our homes. I knew she was right but my heart ached that a lifetime of memories could be lost. When you are well on the back side of the years you are given on this earth, the thought of losing all of the treasures collected in those earlier years, stings like salt rubbed onto a broken heart.
So, room by room, I chose and loaded the selected items into the car. Then I drove away, watching the home we worked so hard to get, disappear behind me into the smoke.
Saved from the fire
It would be seven days, four different hotel stays, and 1,200 km driven before we would return home. I ended up meeting John in Calgary. With Kelowna airspace still restricted, the only way for us to reunite was for me to drive to him and the closest he could get to me was Calgary. That was on day four. We made our way back from there.
But we did make our way home. And home was fine. The feeling of relief was profound but so too was the sorrow for the neighbours around us and across the lake who would not be as fortunate as we. The worst of our loss was the contents of our fridge and freezer. Nothing in comparison to what others are enduring as I type this.
Sitting here two comfortable weeks after this ‘adventure’ ended, I can look back without anxiety and start to appreciate what I’ve learned.
Lessons I learned from the fire…
Choose your information sources wisely
In this day and age, it almost goes without saying how difficult it is to find reliable information online. I was amazed at the misinformation that was so easily available on the status of the fire and our property. It’s easy to appreciate that social media has become a poor source of reliable info. Add in a natural disaster and a sprinkling of conspiracy theories and you’re left with an upsetting mix of half-truths and bold-faced lies. Bill C-18 (the Online News Act) has only hindered the search for facts, so critical to those impacted as these natural disasters become more commonplace.
The lowest point for me came early in the morning the day after I evacuated. Checking the NASA FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management Systems) website showing satellite pictures of the area, it indicated that the entire community in which we live, including the street our home is on, was completely engulfed in the fire. It was only after panicked searching, trying to find anything that either corroborated or contradicted the NASA images, that I came upon what was to be our most reliable and dependable information source. The Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Map. It’s not to say that NASA had it wrong. It’s just that their mapping included fires and heat and smoke, which blanketed our area. Find reliable information you can trust and understand.
Try to look forward
Natural disasters are situations where you truly have no control whatsoever. You don’t know if you’ll be impacted, for how long, or how badly. One thing that helped me get through was looking forward. I asked myself over and over, many times a day, even in an hour, “What then?”… I’m in this hotel for the next two nights… What then? Make a plan for the next couple of nights. What then? John will be back from deployment so we can meet in Calgary. What then? And so it went for the entire time I evacuated. When you can’t control much, being able to control what you do next means a lot.
Stress messes with your brain
There are no explanations, and it’s difficult to describe, what choices a brain will make when it’s in the process of being traumatized. Or under stress, or exhausted, or a combination thereof. In hindsight, some of the items I saved from the fire now seem very nonsensical but they made perfect sense in my mind when I packed them. Some of my odder choices? Two pairs of jeans; I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, one is more casual than the other. Inuit stone carvings; some of them are quite small in intricate (but they are, in fact, stone). Our telescope; this one is hard to explain, even now but the best I can do is, it was an anniversary present from John to me and I think it would be difficult to find another one to replace it. Chips; simply put, I haven’t eaten.
Everyone will deal with it differently
Everyone has their own history of trauma and stress and everyone also has their own ability (or inability, in many cases) to deal with it. I mentioned in my post ‘Reading‘ that I read a lot, I love reading. But when I was evacuated, I couldn’t read a thing, my brain couldn’t focus on the words on the page for longer than a few seconds. That was just my response in those moments alone. When you are going through a situation as stressful and traumatic as this, leave a wide berth for the response of your loved ones. They might be reacting to what’s happening right now but they could just as easily be reacting to how this reminds them of something that happened years ago but feels similar. Be as gentle as you can.
Find humour wherever you can
As difficult as everything was, on the second morning of evacuation, as I sat alone in the Wendy’s beside the hotel, drinking the coffee that tasted nothing like my home brew, I burst out laughing when I noticed the song being piped through the restaurant was Barry Manilow, “Looks Like We’ve Made It.” Find humour wherever you can.
If you’re looking for ways to support those impacted by the Kelowna-area wildfires, Canada Helps has a great list of charities; please consider helping if you can.