When the first news of wildfires hit this year, B.C. resident Kat Thornton packed a bag with clothes, toiletries and canned food for her dogs and cats.
She knew the drill. During her two years of living in Rose Prairie, a settlement about 30 kilometres north of Fort St. John, her community had been threatened with wildfires before. Still, she had never been placed under an evacuation alert or an order – until this past week, when both arrived just one day apart.
Right after the alert was issued, she did more packing. She put irreplaceable items such as documents and necessities including medications all in one spot, so everything would be easy to grab on the way out. She also came up with a plan for her livestock: She jumped on Facebook, asking people to help relocate her 16 sheep if she and her family needed to be evacuated.
“I just had everything ready,” she said. The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire had made her realize how quickly flames could spread. “It was scary knowing that it’s a very real possibility, that you could have to leave your house and maybe never be able to come back to the same thing.”
Ms. Thornton is among 1,300 residents that are under an evacuation alert in British Columbia; about 30 are under an evacuation order as of Tuesday. For many of those people, the hurried decisions about what to pack and what to leave behind only heighten an already anxious situation. Documents and photos are natural must-haves. But the stress of the moment also means people grab items that they wonder, later, why they bothered.
Before they hit the road, Ms. Thornton and her husband added a few extra items to their car (which had a full tank of gas), including her laptop, toys for their daughter and a Nintendo Switch, which she didn’t even take out of the bag.
“We brought it because why not? We had time. Might as well bring something that will keep us entertained while we’re in a hotel or wherever we’re gonna land,” she said.
Ms. Thornton and her family were out of their home for about a week. Once they returned last Friday morning, after the order was downgraded to an alert on Thursday, she started to wash everything – and later repacked, “so it’s all ready to go again if we need to.”
British Columbia has seen 27 per cent more blazes to date this year compared with the 10-year average, Cliff Chapman, the director of provincial operations for BC Wildfire Service, said last week. In neighbouring Alberta, about 10,000 residents are currently out of their homes. That province has been under a state of emergency since early May, after more than 100 wildfires forced nearly 25,000 residents to evacuate.
The Alberta government is doing a better job giving notice than in the past, said Amanda Pack, who lives in Edmonton. Back in 2016, she was given three minutes to leave her previous home in Fort McMurray.
“In three minutes, your mind is somewhere else. You don’t grab what you want to grab,” she said. She wasn’t able to pack any family photos or other precious items such as her daughter’s scrapbooks.
“My parents have passed away, so those photos were all we had. … Instead of grabbing that, I grabbed something as stupid as a coffee pot for my Keurig. You are not in your mind when you have three minutes to evacuate.”
People living in fire-prone areas shouldn’t wait until an alert to get ready, she said. “That’s all farmland; that’s all trees; that’s all valleys. It travels fast. It doesn’t take long.”
Both she and Ms. Thornton suggest people think about what things are irreplaceable and essential to them before they are in an emergency situation.
According to the Prepared BC Wildfire Preparedness Guide, when people are placed under an alert they should gather their grab-and-go bags, emergency plan, cherished mementos and copies of important documents at the front door – or pack them in their vehicle – so that they are ready to leave on short notice. The guide features a basic packing list, which includes bottled water, ready-to-eat food, a flashlight, radio, batteries and a small first-aid kit.
Elsie Harden has been compiling several comprehensive evacuation lists – for humans, pets and livestock – and sharing them on a Facebook group she established after parts of northern B.C. were placed under a state of emergency because of wildfires in 2016.
That year, “there was a lot of people panicking, and there wasn’t a ton of information out there. I just wanted to help people. And I know how I react in those situations,” she said.
Besides common essentials, she suggests people consider bringing camping equipment in case they need to sleep outside. For pets, in addition to leashes, litter, litter boxes and carriers, training collars should be added to the list for any dogs that are reactive.
Rob de Pruis, the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s national director of consumer and industry relations, said people should make sure they bring insurance documents for their home, vehicle and any other items they may have insured, such as a boat or trailer. He also encouraged people to take photos or video of every room and to document everything inside and outside their home. That way, if their home is severely damaged in fires, they will have a record of what they have lost.