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‘Very different Christmas’ for those affected by B.C. wildfires this season

December 21, 2023  By Brenna Owen, Darryl Greer, Dirk Meissner, Chuck Chiang and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press


British Columbia’s 2023 wildfires were a life-changing disaster for many, and their impact has echoed into the holiday season.

The fire season was already breaking records by mid-August when forecasters warned that dry lightning and strong winds on the way were a recipe for catastrophe. Thousands were forced to leave in the southern Interior ahead of fast-moving wildfires. Fire officials described a ferocious fight to save homes, but hundreds were burned to their foundations in the Okanagan and Shuswap regions.

From fire chiefs, to those who lost their homes, to Pumba the pig, here’s how some affected by the emergency are spending their holiday season:

‘I DON’T THINK WE’VE EVER BEEN STRONGER’

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Paul Zydowicz is among 13 members of the Wilson’s Landing Fire Department who lost their homes when a wildfire tore through their small community on the shores of Okanagan Lake in August.

The fire chief said the disaster “eclipsed” everything else they experienced this year.

“Regardless of what else happened in everybody’s lives, we just keep on going back and talking about the fire,” Zydowicz said.

“There’s a lot of associated stress, there’s a lot of trauma, there’s a lot of sadness, but I think overall, the community is pretty positive in our plans going forward.”

As terrible as it was, Zydowicz said the destructive fire has pulled people together.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been stronger as far as the feeling of community.”

Zydowicz said the holiday season will help people as they try to “go back to normal,” but it’s hard to start from scratch.

“All the Christmas decorations that aren’t there anymore, that you’ve accumulated for 20, 30 years sometimes, and the older folks, longer than that,” he said. “You can’t have those things your kids madeĀ  that used to hang on the tree every year.”

He and his family are renting a house in nearby West Kelowna, where they can stay for up to two years as they start the process of rebuilding.

Others have temporary arrangements, as they struggle to find a home in the rental market, he said.

Zydowicz said he’s heard of insurance companies indicating it could be three or four years before some residents will be able to return home after rebuilding.

“It’s rather massive, because we just added 200 homes to be rebuilt in a very small area and ‘you know, the rest of the province was burning too.” ‘

Looking ahead, Zydowicz said he hopes the landscape starts showing signs of recovery and the rebuilding process is smooth for those who lost their homes.

“Rebuilding is part of it, but there’s only so much we can do about nature and I’m hoping that we have nature help us with making the area look green again, because that’s what was the magic about our little neck of the woods here.”

‘IT’S JUST GONNA BE A LOT OF HARD WORK’

Jesse Zeman and his family use to host holiday gatherings at their property, where people could skate on an outdoor rink and go tobogganing.

But their home was destroyed in the wildfire that raced through forest and suburbs inWest Kelowna, B.C., in August.

“The good news is we have a place now and get to see some family over the holidays and yeah, so that’s the silver lining I guess,” he said.

After the fire, Zeman and his wife and two children stayed with family, then lived in a short-term rental for months before finding a new place at the beginning of December.

He said the family will be there for about six months as they wait on their insurance claim so they can begin rebuilding.

Zeman said it’s been somewhat overwhelming trying to deal with the preparations to rebuild, but over the holidays, they’ll be spending time with family “and taking time to relax.”

The stress of dealing with the area’s tight rental market after the fire was difficult to manage, he said, but the flip-side has seen those in his neighbourhood come together to support each other.

“I don’t see any miracles on the horizon. It’s just gonna be a lot of hard work,” he said. “It’s definitely, I would say, brought our neighbourhood together for sure, which has been really good. Everybody’s reaching out and in contact and supporting each other. So, that’s been that’s been pretty, pretty awesome for sure.”

‘MAKING IT THROUGH, BUT NOT WITHOUT DIFFICULTY’

Jennifer Hansen helped feed firefighters and evacuees during the wildfires and said she’s one of the lucky ones this Christmas in West Kelowna, B.C.

The Salvation Army captain said she’ll be spending Christmas in her home, with her family, putting up decorations that have been part of her holiday traditions for years.

Others won’t be so fortunate, said Hansen who is hearing from people who lost their homes in the wildfires who are struggling emotionally and financially.

“For me it was an inconvenience,” she said. “We were out of our house for 10 days but we went back and everything was there as is and I got to pull out my decorations and put them up.”

“Some of these folks tell stories of them thinking back to the Christmas decorations that were very sentimental to them that were passed down through the family and over time, that the kids made for them or a parent gave to them, and they don’t have those anymore,” Hansen said.

She said Christmas can also be a reminder for some of everything that was lost.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking, heartbreaking stories that we’re hearing,” said Hansen. “It is difficult and I don’t think I’ll play it down and say, ‘it’s not that bad.’ People are making it through but not without difficulty.”

‘A VERY DIFFERENT CHRISTMAS’

The scars of the McDougall Creek wildfire that raced through West Kelowna in August are plainly visible this holiday season.

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund said groups are coming together every day to support those who lost their homes.

“And it’s devastating to look up on the hills there and see the scars, and know that means a very different Christmas for those whose homes were lost.

“The early days of the fire were difficult physically for us because we were working hard and we weren’t sleeping or eating properly,” he said. “But I think that as time has gone on, things have become more challenging mentally.”

But Brolund — who became a nationally known figure due to daily fire briefings and went on to address the United Nations — said the wildfire has also brought out the best in the community as people rallied around firefighters and those who lost their homes.

He said that, just as the scars of the fire are still visible, so are signs along the edge of the highway with messages of gratitude and support for emergency response staff and others.

“The number of cards and signs that were at the firehall was overwhelming,” Brolund said. “There’s a sign up in the firehall here from a family that lost their home, and we walk by that every day.”

He said the fire brought the importance of family back into focus.

“None of this would have been possible for our firefighters if it wasn’t for our families,” Brolund said. “The majority of our firefighters were evacuated during this fire, and they didn’t have time to go home to pack. So, none of this (effort) would have happened if it wasn’t for the families taking care of that at home.”

PUMBA THE PIG ‘JUST LIVING HER BEST LIFE’

Pumba the pig didn’t just survive when a wildfire swept over the Broken Rail Ranch in West Kelowna in August.

She’s thriving, according to Keramia Lawrie, whose parents own the ranch. She said Pumba was looking forward to a Christmas meal of turkey leftovers and maybe some spaghetti.

Lawrie said Pumba emerged from the disaster with a taste for pasta thanks to firefighters who took care of her after she was found alive in the ruins of the ranch.

A helicopter pilot initially threw granola bars from the air to sustain Pumba but later other firefighters “DoorDashed her spaghetti,” said Lawrie.

She said Pumba refused to eat her regular diet after being “so spoiled” by the fire crews, but she won’t begrudge a Christmas feast for the hog.

“I think she deserves that. She is a survivor,” Lawrie said.

When the fire swept over the farm in August, Lawrie’s father, Jeff Findlay, had to escape without Pumba and her sister Miss Wilbur. Pumba was spotted from the air roaming on a patch of grass, but Miss Wilbur didn’t survive.

Lawrie said Pumba appeared to have overcome the loss of Miss Wilbur and moved on with her life.

“I think we are gonna get her another pig eventually, but right now she seems pretty happy hanging out with the goats and the horses,” said Lawrie. “She gets lots of attention.”

Pumba’s daily routine involves lots of napping and when she is awake, she hangs out with other farm animals.

“That’s kind of her day, she is very spoiled. She doesn’t have to work or anything,” laughed Lawrie.

Community volunteers have come together over the past few months to help rebuild the farm, including a little hut for Pumba to replace the one destroyed in the fire.

“She loves it. She’s very happy,” said Lawrie. “She’s really just living her best life.”

Two mysteries remain, Lawrie said. The first is how the giant pig survived in the eye of the wildfire storm. The second is how much she weighs because she’s now too big to fit on the scale.

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