Wildfire evacuees are beginning to return to Williams Lake after a sudden order to leave was lifted for some residents on Thursday, July 27. An alert remains in effect, however, and one family will stay in Powell River for approximately another week out of caution for their young son's health.
“Because of smoke and air quality up there, the hospital is not fully up and running,” said Jenni Halladay, whose family came to Powell River to stay with relatives after a trip to Children's Hospital left them unable to return home. “We were told that if another order was called, we’d only have five minutes to leave.”
Jenni, husband Marc, nine-year-old daughter Katie and three-year-old son Brodie, who required surgery in Vancouver, are one of six evacuated families who came to Powell River to stay with relatives, according to Powell River Emergency Support Service director and Red Cross lead Robert Holmgren.
Holmgren is responsible for providing food, clothing and shelter to the families.
“They’re all very grateful,” he said.
Holmgren has been doing emergency support for 18 years and said he has never been involved in an evacuation.
"One of the families had a bang on the door and were told, 'You've got maybe 10 minutes to get out of here; the fire is right at the border of your property,’” said Holmgren. "They grabbed what they could, threw it into the vehicle and were out of there with the fire chasing them.”
Everyone forced to flee the danger, destruction and devastation from the BC interior wildfires has their own story.
“Our little guy was coming out of surgery on Friday, July 7, and our phones started ringing off the hook with news of the fire,” said Jenni.
There was no way for the Halladays to get back to Williams Lake because of highway closures, so their decision was to come to Powell River and stay with Marc’s parents, Chris and Colin Darbyshire.
“On our last ferry ride from Earl's Cove, that's when the alert came in,” said Jenni.
The first evacuation alerts were quickly followed by orders. Last week, orders had been downgraded to alerts for some areas around Williams Lake.
Many families don’t know what they’re going home to, or if they’ll get home and be ordered to leave again.
When Terry Munday, a member of Powell River’s Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, recently drove into the Williams Lake area he said he saw where houses and little farms had been taken out. Everything was charred in certain areas by the massive forest fire that forced the evacuation of close to 40,000 residents in mid-July, he said.
“Then the next property would be fine,” said Munday. “It’s very sporadic.”
Luckily, fires missed the Halladay home. When the order to evacuate was lifted, Jenni said they had someone drive by their property.
“There's a lot of ash, soot and a couple of spot fires that were on our front lawn,” she said. “Nothing too big and severe, so that's good. It looks like the house is okay.”
Unlike the people of Williams Lake and other regions of the BC interior who had minutes to leave with what little they could pack, Munday was prepared for his trip from Powell River.
“When they make the call, I'm fully equipped,” he said. “I've got my tent, sleeping bag, basic food and vehicle. It's easy to mobilize me.”
Munday is one of six local Rangers who has voluntarily gone to the fire-ravaged interior, along with Steve Wasp, Richard Becker, Jeannie Keays, Peter Harvey and Ifti Gehlen.
The Rangers were called up by the military to be responsible for duties that include assisting the Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP at checkpoints in and out of Williams Lake, as well as getting food and water to public-safety officers and any other tasks they are called upon to do.
Rangers, military personnel, RCMP, sheriffs, vehicle-inspection agents and conservation officers are all inside the fire zone, according to Munday.
Driving around Williams Lake with military vehicles, it has "an apocalyptic feeling,” said Munday, who has been a Ranger for three years and served in the infantry in the 1970s.
“You're going around town and there's not a lot going on,” he said. “It's not business as normal here in Williams Lake, that's for sure.”
Munday was sent to Watch Lake on Saturday, July 29, where the Rangers assisted the RCMP. Watch Lake is in an evacuation order because of the fast-moving Elephant Hill fire in the 70 Mile House area.
“We're going around helping to advise people of the situation and that they should leave,” said Munday.
Halladay said that people in the area are frustrated since the evacuation was downgraded.
“The fact that the order was lifted for the town and turned into an alert has made quite a few people upset and worried about their safety,” she said.
The interior remains dry with frequent wind warnings and thunder and lightning storm activity. These are conditions that can quickly turn an evacuation alert into another order to get out fast.
“That's what a lot of people are scared is going to happen,” said Halladay. “They've been told, 'Don't unpack because you're on alert.' There's a 30-minute warning to get out of town.”
In Powell River, Ranger commander Peter Behr has been coordinating deployment of local crew with the military.
“There's a huge coordination issue of when people go, where they are to report and what they're supposed to bring,” said Behr.
Powell River is one of the larger municipalities that has a Rangers crew.
“I'm proud of them,” said Behr, who has been a Ranger for 18 years. “There may be other Rangers going from Powell River to the fire zones, but the call hasn't come yet.”
Meanwhile, Jenni said she is already preparing her children for the long ride home.
“Even if our house is fine and a good majority of the town is fine," she said, "we're going to be driving home to a completely different situation."