Support pours in for 13 firefighters in tiny B.C. brigade whose own homes burned down

Support pours in for 13 firefighters in tiny B.C. brigade whose own homes burned down
The chief of a small rural fire department in Kelowna, B.C., says 13 members of his own crew have lost their homes while fighting wildfires this season. The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above lakefront homes in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.

Kathleen Zydowicz hasn’t seen much of her husband lately, keeping in touch via text while he and dozens of colleagues fight wildfires around their tiny community of Wilson’s Landing, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, B.C.

Paul Zydowicz, Wilson’s Landing fire chief, told a press conference Thursday that the devastating McDougall Creek blaze has been a “nightmare.”

“The force, speed and intensity of the fire is unprecedented in our community,” he said.

But his wife has been forced to confront the ferocity of the fires too because the couple’s own house is among those destroyed, reduced to a pile of rubble and twisted metal.

The chief said 13 members of his brigade had lost their homes in the community, which has a summer population of about 500.

The Okanagan is now rallying behind the Wilson’s Landing fire department, which has about 25 members, as they deal with the fires on a personal level. Children have been crafting handmade thank-you cards. The families have been swamped with gifts of clothing. And an online fundraiser is collecting thousands in donations.

“It’s all been pretty surreal,” Kathleen said Friday. “I think for me, personally, I haven’t had a chance to really talk to my husband very much. I know how busy he is, so we’re letting him do his job.”

She keeps texting him about rental homes because the “dream home” they built themselves is now gone.

Paul said members of the department kept up the fight “from the very first spark” as their own homes burned behind them, calling the losses to the community an “incredible blow.”

The firefighters’ homes are among 181 destroyed or damaged in communities around Lake Okanagan since last week amid the worst wildfire season in the province’s history.

Kathleen said she felt guilty as she processed her thoughts about losing her home while so many others from the fire department had as well.

“Because we had just lost our house, I was trying to just deal with my kids and, you know, where we’re going to stay and insurance and what do we need to do and where are we going to live,” she said.

Local charity Mamas for Mamas has been collecting clothing donations and distributing them to the firefighters’ families.

“They’ve been great with providing like underwear and socks and just basic things for these guys,” she said. The families who lost their homes “had literally nothing,” she added.

Kathleen said it has been a blur over the past week, and she worries about her teenage son and daughter as they work out where to live before planning to rebuild.

“The craziness has died down,” she said. “I think everyone’s just been on autopilot up to now.”

She’s been heartened by the outpouring of community support, getting hugs from strangers and connecting with people, while donations to her husband’s crew have poured in.

“I’m so grateful to all the people out there who are just so giving and kind and have donated underwear and socks for the fire guys,” she said. “They don’t need anymore.”

Meaghan Alton’s father Tom Crocker is also a member of the Wilson’s Landing brigade. They lost their family home of 45 years.

“My mom and dad are both staying with my other sister in Kelowna, but he’s continued to work the fire line,” she said. “He’s been working night shift every night, back out on the fire line since everything happened.”

Alton said her dad had tools in the garage that belonged to his father, and her mother had family heirlooms going back generations.

“The house was full of childhood memories and family memories,” she said. “When you’re told to evacuate, of course you grab like a couple of bins of things, right? You grab what’s top of mind, maybe a few photo albums and your computers and your legal documents and the basic essentials that you can kind of throw in a car but that’s barely a drop of a house that people put 45 years into building and growing a family together.”

Alton said her dad, a retired teacher, had been burned and blistered on the front line, but insisted on going back out despite pleas from family and friends to take a rest.

“But he’s just like all the firefighters at Wilson’s Landing, every single one of them is incredibly dedicated and devoted to their communities,” she said. “These men and women were defending their neighbours’ houses while their house was already burned to the ground and they never stopped once.”

Alton’s children and her nieces and nephews made handmade cards and cookies for the crew. When Alton posted about it on Facebook, a local business started gathering more cards and gift cards for the families. “Let’s flood these firefighters/volunteers with love and gratitude,” it stated.

An online fundraiser that identifies the 13 firefighters who lost their homes had raised about $13,000 in seven hours since being set up on GoFundMe.

Annick deGooyer’s husband Rob Baker is also a member of the Wilson’s Landing fire crew.

“It hit pretty hard,” she said, referring to the moment she realized her home in Traders Cove where her family lived for over 20 years was gone.

“I guess we had what you would have in 20 years. Lots of things on the wall that meant a lot and, you know, Christmas decorations, all those sorts of things that you kind of build up over 20 years of being in a house,” said deGooyer.

“I don’t know that it happens very often that half of a fire department loses their houses,” she said.

Darryl Greer and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2023

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