For people in B.C.'s wildfire zone, Trudeau's trip offers little relief


After several days of milder temperatures and with some evacuation orders finally lifted, there was some hope that B.C.’s historic wildfire season would have a reprieve. 

So much for that. 

On Saturday, the Elephant Hill fire exploded again in size, crossing a river and forcing evacuation orders for an area seven times the size of Vancouver. 

On Sunday, an evacuation order was expanded to a large rural area west of Quesnel again, making the evacuation zone there approximately half the size of Prince Edward Island. 

The number of evacuees across B.C. is down. But the number of wildfires of note isn’t going down, and many are still precariously close to urban centres.   

“Weather’s been our biggest challenge across the board on all these fires,” said Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.’s chief fire information officer. 

“We had a relatively quiet week up until this point — low wind, low heat — but that changed yesterday.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enters the wildfire zone for the first time, meeting with emergency officials and others in Williams Lake.

This isn’t a normal arrival to a disaster by a prime minister — but then again, this isn’t a normal type of wildfire situation. 

Justin Trudeau Red Cross fundraiser Revelstoke

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke in Revelstoke, B.C., on Saturday, at a Canadian Red Cross fundraiser for victims of wildfires in B.C. (CBC)

Mixed feelings in town 

There are two time-tested options when a national leader enters a natural disaster zone: show up in the heat of the crisis to sympathize with evacuees and reassure frontline workers, or come at the end to praise the work of all involved.

Neither situation is in play here.

Several days after the evacuation order was lifted, Williams Lake is returning to some semblance of normalcy, with pubs full of people and grocery store aisles packed. The total number of evacuees in B.C. has decreased from over 45,000 to around 6,000. 

But this isn’t a celebratory trip for Trudeau either: smoke still hangs over the city and residents are aware that the situation hasn’t markedly improved. 

Add in a political climate here where the Liberals have never been the most popular party, and the reaction in town to the prime minister’s appearance seemed decidedly mixed on Sunday. 

“He should have been in 100 Mile House, he should have been here, to see what we’re going through,” said resident Jim Beck. “A lot of people were chased out of their homes. Everybody else has showed up so far.”

Samantha Dobby was more forgiving.

“I think it’s better late than never. I know everyone’s mad because he spent time at the [Halifax] pride parade instead of coming here … but we have to weigh our battles. There’s nothing really to be mad about.”

SAVE-ON FOODS

People in Williams Lake buy goods at Save-On Foods after the town was reopened to residents after a 12-day long evacuation order. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Stress building in region

If there’s one theme that consistently surfaces while talking to people throughout B.C.’s Interior, it’s the taxing effect of how long they’ve been in a state of having to worry. 

When the evacuations began, people showing up in Kamloops or Prince George or Williams Lake weren’t exactly upbeat, but they exhibited a certain calm, accepting the temporary nature of their situation. 

But it has been 25 days.

Twenty-five days of people evacuated, people hearing of constant alerts and orders and winds and warnings, people sharing information and misinformation on social media, people not knowing if they have a home to go back to. 

Walt Cobb

A Facebook post by Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb on Saturday, expressing how false rumours spread about an evacuation order over the weekend. (Facebook)

“It’s been really frustrating,” said Val Summers. “There’s a lot of misinformation on Facebook. People say what they hear, and it morphs into some other version.” 

Summers lives in Clinton, B.C., which for three weeks was one of the few communities along Highway 97 that was not evacuated. But that didn’t stop the mounting stress prior to her own departure on Saturday. 

“People are posing horrific pictures of fire to draw attention to their posts. For those of us who have been traumatized by fire, it’s not cool. You need to know what’s going on, but you don’t need the trauma to go with it.”

The prime minister will assuredly praise the patience and determination of everyone who has fought and suffered during the province’s largest and most sustained weather-based displacement ever.  

But ultimately, there’s only one thing that can cool the temperature in B.C’s Interior — and it’s not words. 

With files from Anita Bathe



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