Lila Casey (right), the oldest of 16 children raised in the Chilcotin, and her nephew’s wife Rochelle Binette are hoping other communities in Canada will learn from the tragic death of David Jeff during the Williams Lake wildfire evacuation. Angie Mindus photo

Family of B.C. wildfire victim wants better emergency preparedness for vulnerable people

Williams Lake’s David Jeff “fell through the cracks”

The family of wildfire evacuee David Jeff is hoping his death won’t be in vain.

Jeff’s sister Lila Casey and her nephew’s wife Rochelle Binette would like to see communities across Canada learn from their tragedy and include their most vulnerable citizens in better emergency preparedness planning in the future.

“He fell through the cracks,” said Binette. “It was really hard because, if you remember at the time, the roads were closed in all directions and families were split up and it was difficult to get a hold of anybody.”

Casey said she wasn’t even aware her brother was missing after the city evacuated.

Read more: Community saddened by news of David Jeff’s death

“Hopefully this can bring awareness to other family members or anybody in a situation like this.”

Jeff was a member of the community of Tsi Del Del (Redstone), but lived much of his life on the streets of Williams Lake.

He suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, which the family believes was the result of years of abuse in residential school at the St. Joseph’s Mission, where he was molested.

Casey remembers her brother, one of 16 children born to Thomas and Lily Jeff, as a quiet and content boy growing up who loved water and spent his summers swimming, picking berries and fishing.

“He was a happy young boy. He was very protective of us, and when he went fishing and caught a fish he’d eat very little because he wanted the younger ones to have more to eat than he did.”

Casey said as a young adult she saw her brother change.

“He kept it all inside,” she said of the abuse.

“He wasn’t talking as much. Mom said she noticed that too.”

Read more: A life lost

Jeff was accepted for who he was in Williams Lake, and spent a lot of time in Boitanio Park where he could often be seen playing his guitar.

Casey said she is very sad about the circumstances surrounding Jeff’s death — that he was away from home, that they don’t know when he passed away and that he was located in a pulp mill settling pond.

“If I had known he was by himself I would have called around and tried to find somewhere for him to go,” said Casey, who lives in Hope. “I thought someone was with him.”

She feels her brother, who did not like the heat of Kamloops, was either looking for a way home or to escape the heat when he died.

The family said they are thankful for the support they have received from the BC RCMP, and also that of Tsi Del Del and the Canadian Red Cross who are donating money toward Jeff’s Celebration of Life.

“It was very kind and generous of them to offer help for the funeral arrangements,” Binette said.

That event will take place Friday, March 23 at the Longhouse in Williams Lake from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Everyone is welcome.

Read more: Remember the vulnerable during emergencies

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The family of David Jeff, 67, seen here in September 2016 at Boitanio Park, is hosting a celebration of life Friday for the man, who was raised in the Chilcotin but became a familiar face in Williams Lake over the years. Angie Mindus/Tribune file photo

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