Dorothy Stecko is trying to stay positive. A wildfire forced her to leave her fifth-wheel RV on Osoyoos Indian Band land earlier this week. She escaped with little more than the clothes on her back and a bag of family photos. Now, she’s living out of a motel in town, right by the lakefront hotel where she works, tending to the grounds of a resort where rooms are being filled by tourists still coming to B.C.’s Okanagan for hazy summer vacations.
“When a motel will take a tourist’s money before an evacuee, I think that’s pretty sad,” the gardener and maintenance worker said on Thursday.
In the wake of the destruction of the town of Lytton late last month, some evacuees were made to drive for more than three hours, skirting highway closings, only to end up sleeping in designated centres as far away as Chilliwack, just east of Vancouver. When they arrived in Kamloops, some had trouble finding hotel rooms during the busy Canada Day long weekend.
Mayors in tourist and wildfire hot spots say this tension between those seeking leisure and those needing respite from natural disasters will only increase. That’s because this year’s historic heat, which has already pulled B.C.’s wildfire season a month ahead of schedule, appears to be a sign of summers to come. Experts are warning that major changes will likely be needed to the way evacuees are shuffled around, now that the blazes extend across whole regions.
Ms. Stecko, a grandmother of four, said she doesn’t know yet if the Nk’Mip Creek wildfire has destroyed her uninsured home, but she says she is no longer surprised at the awesome power of nature after her harrowing escape from a previous wildfire. In 2016, she fled from a Fort McMurray-area oil sands camp. Just before the flames engulfed the city, she jumped in her truck and ripped back home to Edmonton.
This time, her journey to find emergency lodging was more complicated. She says the 60 or so neighbours she was evacuated with on the afternoon of July 20 first marshalled at the Osoyoos Indian Band’s main centre. Then they were sent to a legion hall in the nearby town of Oliver, where some slept in cots and others opted to snooze in their cars. While waiting in line for food that night, Ms. Stecko heard that a couple motels in Osoyoos were opening up their rooms – a rarity during a week when tourists were still willing to pay market rates in the famed sun destination.
“I’ve talked to other people that work at hotels and none of them were open. This is supposed to be a community that works together – it don’t,” Ms. Stecko said.
Ingrid Jarrett, president and chief executive of the BC Hotel Association, whose members represent the province’s 1,400 hotels, said people worried about wildfires encroaching on their vacations should instead go to unaffected areas like Vancouver, where just over a third of hotel rooms are currently occupied.
Pader Brach, executive director of regional operations at Emergency Management BC (EMBC), told reporters at a briefing Thursday that long journeys for evacuees are an unfortunate product of the unprecedented situation in the province, which is fighting 272 active fires. He asked evacuees to stay with family or friends if they have that option.
Oliver’s Mayor, Martin Johansen, said in an interview that EMBC is still trying to “wrap its head around” how to deal with a continuing flood of hundreds of new evacuees into the region. On a conference call Thursday with the agency, he said EMBC staff did not explain whether the new provincial state of emergency allows the agency to commandeer hotel rooms for evacuees.
He said EMBC told the conference call they have a range of other housing options, such as university dorm rooms.
Mr. Johansen added that anyone seeking sand, sun, wine and golf in his region right now should rethink their plans and stay away.
Sue McKortoff, Mayor of neighbouring Osoyoos, is less forceful in what she is asking of tourists to her community, which is located on the American border, in a shrub steppe ecosystem with pockets of Canada’s only semi-arid desert.
“Please do your homework before you come. And I can’t even say that it might be safe tomorrow because things are changing quite quickly,” she said Thursday afternoon.
She said it is up to the town’s motels and hotels whether or not they make rooms available to evacuees over tourists, but that she was told that distressed locals are getting “first dibs” on any available rooms.
Wendy Fewchuk said earlier this week that the Riviera Motel she manages in Osoyoos welcomed Ms. Stecko and more than a dozen other evacuees into rooms that cost $145 per night. She said that price is well within the budgets of evacuees and EMBC, which in some cases is picking up the cheques. Resorts down the street charge upwards of $300 – too expensive for many in need.
EMBC did not respond Friday to a request for information about how much the agency will pay to house an evacuee in a hotel, how many rooms it has paid for this wildfire season, or whether it plans to force hotel operators to open up rooms.
That first night, Ms. Fewchuk, her daughter and husband rushed to clean rooms and checked the evacuees in from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“There was a lot of crying and they were very grateful for a room,” she said.
With a report from Xiao Xu
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