Kathy Dickson moved her young family to Slave Lake, Alberta, last summer because she was sick of dealing with the yearly threat of Okanagan forest fires.
Today, back in Kelowna getting her bearings after escaping a blaze hundreds of kilometres away, she can’t help but point out the irony of that decision.
It might even be funny, if it weren’t for the fact that she’s spent the last week coming to terms with a disaster that incinerated one-third of the community she now calls home.
“I just feel lost, even though I’m from here,” she said, speaking from a Kelowna relative’s house where she’ll stay until she gets word that it’s time to return to Slave Lake.
“My oldest son keeps waking up crying, with nightmares, and my youngest sees planes, points to them and says ‘hot.’ I saw a poofy cloud when we were driving into town, and my stomach dropped because I thought it was smoke.
“And, I know it seems small, but I don’t have my children’s things, like my son’s rock collection. It’s hard.”
Everything—but a blanket, two stuffies and what each of her boys, ages two and four, had on their backs—was left behind when the family evacuated from what Dickson described as a scene from “the type of movie you don’t want to be in.”
The Dicksons were among the thousands of Slave Lake residents who emptied out of the town May 15 as a wildfire roared out of control, stoked by winds gusting up to 100 kilometres an hour.
As they streamed out on area highways, whole community blocks were devastated as houses burned to their foundations.
Hundreds of vehicles were incinerated, while businesses and government infrastructure were brought to a tangled mess.
Although the damage was extensive, the fire’s beginnings didn’t set off alarm bells for the family that had witnessed West Kelowna’s fires from their Mt. Boucherie home the year before.
“Saturday morning we could see smoke over the hills, and we thought, ‘Uh oh, forest fire,’” she said, noting residents of that area were evacuated immediately.
But it seemed her family was far from danger so they, along with the bulk of the community, stayed put.
By dinner that night another fire appeared in the distance, opposite the morning’s blaze, but still, she said, everything seemed safe.
“Then, Sunday I was at a birthday party for my nephew, and it was so smoky,” she said. “The news said there was no evacuation order, but there were big black balls of smoke, and the sky was red.”
Intuitively, families started to load into their cars and roadways were already clogged by the time the evacuation order was issued and winds stoked flames.
“Some people said that the two fires came together and built their own wind,” Dickson said.
“Toys were blowing across the ground, trees had broken in half and roofs were coming apart.”
The smoke and fire was dense, as Dickson said it seemed like they were driving right into the thick of it as they followed a trail of cars leaving the city.
“No one was coming into Slave Lake, we were bumper to bumper leaving. Then when smoke got so thick that we couldn’t see, cars started coming out and people were pointing and making movements like we had to turn around,” she said.
They did a u-turn and made it out on an eastbound road to Edmonton.
“We were going and it was all fire around the road, with burning trees and poofs of smoke,” she said.
“I thought I was going to throw up, and my son’s eyes were as wide as saucers and I just kept getting texts from family saying, ‘Are you OK?’”
Today they’re safe and know their home escaped the blaze, but “OK” may still be some time in the offing.
“I’m seriously taking day by day,” she said. “It’s getting better, but it’s hard.”
Dickson’s husband is in Edmonton waiting to get back to Slave Lake to see how their home fared, as they’re not sure if it will be livable with the smoke damage.
“My son has asthma to begin with, so we have to wait to see if the air quality is good for him,” she said.
“But my family and friends there keep saying, ‘Are you coming back?’ Of course I will, it’s my home. I just don’t know when.”
Meantime, Dickson said she’s felt blessed by the generosity of those she’s run into along the way.
When they arrived in Peachland, for example, Bliss Bakery filled up a bag of treats for the family when they heard where they were from.
Management at the EnergyPlex gave her sons passes to play at the facility when they realized what they’ve been dealing with.
“They’ve been so amazing,” she said. “I almost cried.”
Dickson isn’t sure if she will be in Kelowna for one, two, three weeks or months but she’s clearly at a disadvantage without any of the things that make up a home.
If you’d like to be in touch, email Dickson at email@example.com.