We awoke to the valley filled with smoke again. Above this haze is a bright and beckoning blue sky. You can see it above the haze today, the smoke is hanging low. Other days you see it through holes in the smoke. On bad days, you don’t know what the weather would really be like, if the smoke wasn’t there. It’s hard to be happy about great weather anyway, when we all know that what we really need is a week of rain — and not just a little bit of rain or sun showers, but soaking, pelting, pouring rain.
My experience of this summer’s forest fires has been limited. I am not an evacuee. My house is actually well away from any imminent danger, but we are certainly not unaware of the many fires that surround us. Everyone is talking about it. The radio reported fire press conferences hourly. The news and newspapers update us with the latest statistics and measurements. For most of us, however, reading about the fire and seeing it are two different things. It was certainly that way for me. I live on a hill and from my house, I can see down the valleys that make up Kamloops, B.C. Often these valleys have been filled with smoke. We have been able to see certain fires on the mountains across the valley from us. During the day, they looked like tufts of smoke and at night, they reminded me of camp fires scattered across the mountain, although I am quite sure I have never had a camp fire that big. When the town of Barrier was evacuated, because of the McLure fire, we could see the huge pillow of smoke that amounted to that town on fire. These sights were not horrendous, certainly the papers showed worse images, but they served as simple reminders that hundreds of people’s homes, pets, and lives are threatened. So far, no one I know has been affected by evacuations, but with hundreds evacuated within the province you know they are out there, many still waiting to see if they have homes left and some already aware their homes are gone.
My closest experience with the fires happened last week, when I went with friends to a lake, west of the city. Around noon we drove away from town, east on Highway 1, and we could see a cloud of smoke above the hilltops, further on down the road. We knew this was the McGillivray Lake fire. As we drove closer, the fire became visible from the highway. The highway follows the South Thompson River and the fire was on the hills of the opposite riverbanks. It seemed the river was basically the only thing that separated the highways from the fire. I had no idea it was so close to the road. It was startling. Helicopters dipped down, filled buckets, which we estimated to be the size of small cars, with river water and rose back up to douse out the flames. Only days before I had driven this same stretch of road. My parents had rented a cabin only minutes down the water. Many of the trees that sprinkled the hillside were now charred and the area was punctuated with black smoke. Where my parents had vacationed would now be very smoky. We counted six helicopters fighting the flames as we passed. It was an astounding and powerful sight.
We passed the fires and got on with our day. It was a good day for us. Between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. we passed the McGillivray Lake fire again, on our way home. Miles before we approached we could see a red orange glow in the sky above the hillside. As we approached we saw the lights of police cars, swirling around in the darkness. Police officers barricaded roads leading off the highway to houses. No one was allowed in. People driving on those roads were only allowed out. They were evacuating the area. The flames from the fire were visible in the dark. Trees stood out, flaming orange in embers. There appeared to be nothing more than patches of flame scattered across the mountainsides as far as we could see down the road. They looked nothing like camp fires.
We began to notice there was more traffic on the road and we quickly realized we were traveling with the evacuees. We immediately felt guilty. First of all, they certainly don’t need any extra traffic, or “gawkers” at times like these. Secondly, we were traveling home, to our safe houses, from our day of fun, while these people had been forced to leave their homes, uncertain that they would have homes to return to. Mini-vans loaded with personal possessions marched down the highway. Cars pulling tent trailers, that you assumed were also loaded with things people couldn’t stand to lose, drove slowly with their hazard lights on all the way into town.
We drove the rest of the way surrounded by the evacuees. It was almost 11:00 by the time I was home and ready for bed. I imagined that many of the evacuees were still checking into the fire shelter, paying for hotels, or settling into friend’s houses. Many were likely answering numerous questions from their children and trying to get a proper night’s sleep. And these are the good worries. I was grateful to have my own bed to sleep in.
Since that day, the news on the fires surrounding Kamloops have improved. The town of Kelowna faced the next wild fire situation. Still, today, smoke lingers in the air at my house. I do not pretend to know what evacuating my home is like and to the friends and family that you know or to anyone who has, I respect your courage and wish you, your home to return to.