By Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The year 2023 has been dubbed British Columbia’s worst wildfire year on record. Since April 1, more than 2,000 wildfires have burned over 22,000 square kilometres of the province’s beautiful landscape. Among the population centres, the hardest hit areas are West Kelowna and the North Shuswap.
By the fall, the damage had become so extensive that the B.C. government set up a disaster assistance fund in an effort to help communities rebuild.
Drought conditions are partly to blame, with 80 percent of the province experiencing the most severe drought levels ever recorded.
Some scientists say that the increasing frequency and intensity of the forest fires are a dual result of climate change along with entrenched forest management practices.
Lisa Letkeman and Debbie Fewster of Niverville, Manitoba are volunteers through Samaritan’s Purse (SP), a nondenominational organization that has been providing disaster relief and developmental services around the globe since 1973.
Both have been trained to act as team leads — those who lead and direct volunteers when they arrive at a disaster site.
Answering the call to help with relief efforts in Kelowna meant this would be Letkeman’s eleventh deployment with SP in six years. Fewster is closing out her first year, making B.C. her second deployment.
Working both separately and together, the friends were commissioned to run two different emergency evacuation centres. Fewster was stationed in Kamloops and Letkeman in Kelowna.
All together, they put in five weeks of service before returning to Niverville. And after Thanksgiving, they both plan to return if there’s still a need.
Unlike other service assignments through SP, Fewster and Letkeman were contracted by the B.C. government to help as emergency workers. They were put up in Airbnb housing, along with their teams, and given grocery allotments.
Upon arrival, they were moved by the toll the wildfires had taken both on the affected communities and on the environment.
“There was a daily report on the air quality, and one day it was rated an 11 out of ten,” says Fewster. “That’s how bad it got. And you felt it in your lungs.”
West Kelowna and the neighbouring city of Kelowna are separated by the narrow waters of Okanagan Lake.
“When the fires hit West Kelowna, people in Kelowna were standing on the shore right close to where SP volunteers were staying and witnessing everything on the other side of them,” Letkeman says.
Fewster heard stories about people who had been watching intently from the Kelowna side when the fire made the fateful crossing over from West Kelowna.
“They saw the ember from the west side lift up, cross the lake and land on the east side where it started a new fire,” says Fewster.
Letkeman was put to work at an evacuation centre that could hold nearly 600 beds. She was in charge of ordering beds, linens, and other supplies. She also spent time taking calls from residents who were seeking aid.
Along with five other volunteers, they went through cycles of being put on standby, readying for evacuees as fires neared populated areas, and then standing down when the winds changed direction.
The evacuation centre managed by Fewster’s team was put to greater use. For weeks on end, evacuees poured in and the SP team took rotational shifts. Fewster assumed the night shift.
“They need a bed, they need a shower, and they need food,” says Fewster. “We had a couple of hundred beds set up, but they weren’t always full. Which is good because we didn’t have the manpower all of the time to deal with them.”
It was at Fewster’s shelter where displaced individuals and families first came to register. They were provided a short-term stay at the centre before being assigned to a hotel room if they had no family or friends to rely on for help.
A week or two later, recipients would return to the evacuation centre to reply if they needed ongoing aid. According to Fewster, there would be a palpable difference in such people from their initial night in the shelter.
“When they first come in, they’re kind of in shock but still pretty upbeat and stable,” Fewster says. “When they come back after a week or two, the stress and the reality have set in and you see the emotional pressure.”
Fewster and her team faced a number of challenges during those weeks, not the least of which were the homeless and the drug addicts who came looking for a bed and a meal.
Regardless of their circumstances, Fewster’s team took them in and provided as much aid as possible. She was thankful for the presence of security when things got especially worrisome.
Other families arrived with their pets, and unless they were kennelled they stayed in cars. In some cases, those pets included chickens and turkeys.
“Salvation Army would set up every morning, offering coffee and some sort of breakfast burrito,” Fewster says. “There was often a hot meal served too. Other services would come in during the day and set up tables so people were offered all kinds of aid.”
When Letkeman and Fewster weren’t busy at evacuation centres, they joined teams that were tasked with ash-sifting.
Just as it sounds, ash-sifters go to burned-out homes at the homeowner’s request and sift through the rubble for items that might have been spared. Oftentimes they’re looking for something specific, like valuable heirlooms or sentimental keepsakes.
“What we do is give homeowners closure,” says Letkeman. “They might want special rings or ashes of a loved one or remains of pets and things like that.”
Sifting teams are assigned one day per house, so time is of the essence to remove as many salvageable items as possible.
“Safety is of huge importance to SP,” Letkeman says.
For this reason, an entire ensemble of protective gear is provided. This includes steel shank boots, full body protective suits, nitrile gloves and leather gloves, a hard hat, goggles, and a special P100 respirator.
“When we put on our suits, the suit is taped to the boot and our sleeves are taped to the rubber gloves,” Letkeman says. “There might be a little bit of facial skin exposed, but you’re covered from head to toe.”
Once the suit is on, sifters have a limited time to be in the burn site before they are pulled and expected to hydrate and rest. It might take only 15 minutes before a person’s body temperature gets too high within the suit.
Once an ash sifter has entered the ashes and rubble, they are considered contaminated. Much of the protective equipment is destroyed after a single use. They face all sorts of contaminants, including the chemical products used in home construction and furnishings. Once exposed to fire, these toxins become airborne and leach into nearby materials.
The women were witness to some interesting things pulled from the rubble during their time as sifters. Among them was a classic 1947 Harley Davidson and a beloved five-foot vase which came out intact after falling through flames to the floor below.
There were also smaller victories, and at times they felt like minor miracles.
“One of the sifters pulled out a tin and there was a bunch of Christmas ornaments melted in there,” says Letkeman. “He was going to toss it but then decided to show it to the homeowner. She was beside herself with excitement, because amongst the melted ornaments was one that was saved, and it was from her son who had passed away.”
Fewster says that other homeowners weren’t looking for anything in particular but they would receive a memento created by household items that had melted together in unusual ways. Still others came with jars to take home a sampling of the ashes that had once made up their home.
“It may have no value at all, but it helps them heal,” Letkeman says. “They can walk away and no longer wonder.”
While the sifters seek objects among the rubble, Letkeman and Fewster say that SP’s motto is to always put the homeowner first, paying special attention to their emotional state and their need to just talk through their feelings.
“Often, as a team, one of you will connect with that homeowner more than another one will,” Fewster says. “If that happens, you stop your work and go and visit with them and do what you can to help that homeowner through it.”
Both Fewster and Letkeman agree that the rewards they receive from every volunteering experience make the sacrifice worth it.
“The first time I served with SP, I was sitting together with a group having dinner and… I looked around and I realized that these are my people,” Fewster says. “This is where I want to serve. When you get together with a group of people on deployment, they are all of one mind and one purpose. It’s a beautiful thing.”
As a result, lifelong bonds have been created between many SP volunteers from across the continent, all brought together during times of crisis.
“We work for such an amazing organization that takes incredible care of us, and even when it’s hard it feels easy,” Letkeman says. “You’ve got support. If you say, `I can’t do this,’ well, there’s somebody saying, `Yes you can. How can I help you?”’