Just a thought… All things are connected like the blood that unites us. We do not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. [Chief Seattle]
This is not my story to tell, but the person who should tell it asked me to do so instead. It’s but one family’s experience in the West Kelowna wildfires: a story of terror and timing, uncertainty and unwavering stoicism. And about family – above all, family.
I know there are other fires elsewhere, and each is equally tragic to those affected. This is my younger sister’s story.
Leslie (who you may recall visited me with her grandson last month) lives in the Shannon Lake area of West Kelowna. On Thursday, Leslie and my dad (who you may also recall is 90 and in the strengthening grips of dementia) sat on her deck and watched brave men and women in helicopters trying to fight the towering flames that were ravaging a mountain only one other mountain away from them. Here’s what they saw.
As Les got Dad to bed and the smudgy sun set, the flames grew. She and I sat talking on FB ’til after 1 am while she shared with me what she was watching. She could clearly see where the flames were flaring up and how they were approaching her neighbourhood.
Earlier that same evening, Leslie was alerted to a bear on her sidewalk while out with her dog, who barked at the mama (and also her cub, they later learned); the animals were but two of countless sheep, deer, birds, rabbits and other inhabitants of the forest inferno trying to find their way to safety.
After a night where her adult son kept watch, both on social media and on the deck, the family of five adults and four pets awoke Friday to a pending sense of doom: winds were picking up and the flames showed no signs of slowing as they bore down on them.
As her three worried sisters urged her to evacuate before the knock at the door came, Leslie and her family got their orders in place. She gathered their passports, insurance forms and other vital papers, all the while holding down the sense of panic that was as thick in the air as the acrid smoke from the hectares-wide fire that was showing no sign of slowing.
A helpful stranger came by; he was one of several who selflessly answered an online plea to tow away the small teardrop-shaped trailer housed cosily in their garage, to a safer place (it’s new and Leslie and her husband have no tow hitch). Then the family loaded up and moved across a snail-slow bridge linking West Kelowna to Kelowna.
By now, my older sister’s house in Kelowna wasn’t as safe a refuge as it had first appeared: remarkably – and tragically – flames carried on gale-force winds had jumped Okanagan Lake and were now igniting the other side’s tinder-dry shores. But Leslie and family settled in, putting Dad in Heather and her husband Bob’s bed, with Leslie and the kids trying to sleep wherever there was a flat surface, including in that little trailer that now rested in the driveway of Heather’s home. She and her husband stayed in her downtown office on a pull-out couch. With a coffee maker, a kettle and a bathroom, they seemed well set-up for however long they needed to stay there with their two kitties.
Dad didn’t understand any of what was going on. How could he? No one did, when you think of it. Several times that first night, he arose and asked where they were. But we were fortunate to have him in Leslie’s care; any seniors’ facilities that might have had room for him were either being evacuated themselves, or filled with patients from the Northwest Territories. Again, as the family hunkered down and watched the news, they counted their blessings. As is almost always the case, no matter how bad things are, someone has it worse. (scroll on…)
Above is a picture taken on Friday of the house at which Rob and I stayed as VRBO guests in June. We sent our condolences to our hostess (tearfully and gratefully received), but haven’t had the heart to ask if it’s gone. Like so many homes, it probably is.
Yesterday, Leslie, Dad and the family returned home; they have no running water. Those who are being allowed to go home and who do have water have a ‘Do Not Consume’ order. No exceptions except to flush.
Thick smoke made it impossible for them to see first-hand the destruction in streets tiered above them. She’s already feeling deep sorrow for the people to whom they deliver with their concierge service; they knew so many whose homes are in ashes. Who knows how long the effects of this disaster will echo for everyone?
I have so many other stories to tell you, and there will be some on Thursday’s discussion with Lisa Brandt in our Gracefully & Frankly podcast.
But Leslie and I want to leave you with this: we often hear that disasters can bring out the very best and worst in people. For the worst, you need only go online and see anonymous idiots continuing to suggest that lasers from the sky caused this, the NWT and Maui fires. Or that Trudeau made it happen on purpose. Or that because it’s arson (of which there is no proof in the case of West Kelowna) it cannot possibly be linked to climate change, as if conditions that have made many parts of our country tinder try (or conversely, deadly wet) aren’t a sign of what we were warned about decades ago. It is clear the climate is changing. If we’re not in the “it’s too late” stage, we’re getting pretty damned close. ALL OF US.
The best in people was witnessed personally in those strangers who reached out and answered Leslie’s trailer plea and were also offering to transport animals, if needed. The kind agent Naomi at WestJet who cancelled my ticket there (I was supposed to be arriving for a four-day visit today) and gave me a credit, then offered her condolences to my family for being evacuated. The best is seen in the people who are giving and donating to food banks that need it, as we most certainly will. Click here if you want to help. It’s evident in those who are putting aside their politics and doing their duty well above and beyond.
Like AM 1150 radio host Phil Johnson, who came back from his vacation and was on the air morning ’til night on Friday. Leslie was nearly in tears when she said to me, “It sounds silly, but when we were in the car, I just turned on the radio and his voice immediately calmed me. I knew that everything was going to be okay.” She wanted to reach out to Phil but couldn’t find a way, so I’m doing that now.
You see, my friend, THAT is what connection is about and especially what radio is for, in the long, torturous hours of crisis. I am not familiar with his usual work or leanings, but it doesn’t matter. On Friday, Mr. Johnson’s was a voice of calm and caring in his community, and he stepped up in a way that I would hope anyone with a microphone, a website or a chance to be of assistance would do. Thank you to all of the broadcasters and website minders who had the greater good in their hearts.
Although mine goes out to every person who is still worried for their loved ones or their houses, or in mourning for the loss of their homes, I can speak for Leslie when I say thank you to the helpers. The heroes in the air and on the ground running (and flying) towards dangers while others – including their own families – fled.
My stomach is in less of a fist today because of them, because Leslie and her family went home yesterday and it was still there. I know my sister, and going forward, she will be doing everything she can to help those who were not so fortunate.
Because the best in us needs to be shared.
There’s a brand new story awaiting you tomorrow at Drift with Erin Davis. It’s Man May Love from a Life magazine short story contest over a century ago. Or you can choose to enjoy more than 100 tales to lull you to sleep with a meditation and soft music, a story I’ve rewritten and narrated, and then gentle waves. It’s free (thanks to enVypillow.com), and I’m grateful to say our sleep community continues to grow worldwide. So thank you, you sleeping beauty, you!