View Royal Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Rob Marshall, left, is joined by fellow firefighters Conor Ridout, Reed MacPhail and Capt. Kiel Ferguson for a photo in front of the Tolko mill in Williams Lake. Marshall spoke last week at a fundraiser about the experiences of Greater Victoria firefighters helping battle wildfires in previous weeks. Photo contributed

Dramatic stories told at BC wildfire victim fundraiser in Victoria

View Royal assistant chief, Red Cross staffer and Lt.-Gov. Guichon relay experiences

Donors who sat down to lunch in the comfortable confines of the Union Club may have had an inkling what was coming. But the powerful messages delivered about the B.C. wildfires and the devastation they’ve caused no doubt caught many in the room by surprise.

Billed as Booster for B.C., the Victoria event aimed to raise $40,000 to help the Canadian Red Cross assist victims of the fires during the evacuation period and after they’ve returned home.

View Royal Assistant Chief Rob Marshall, one of a number of Greater Victoria firefighters who went north to help battle the blazes, spoke of the group’s experiences working in and around Williams Lake as residents were preparing for, then were evacuated.

He recalled how heartbreaking it was for he and other firefighters to lose the Tolko mill in Barriere in 2003 and how the town has never truly recovered from the loss of jobs. Part of a task force this time primarily charged with protecting the three mills in the Cariboo hub town – “that was the line in the sand” – Marshall said, “I’m happy to say we didn’t lose a single structure in Williams Lake.”

He described how wildfires can change direction without notice and how the one threatening that town’s livelihood did so and allowed fire crews to prevent urban property damage.

A particularly chilling part of his presentation was a video of a section of fire filmed with a cell phone by a B.C. forest service worker. The clip shows forests on fire to the right of the truck as he drove, but also an orange glow in the rear view mirror that grew larger by the second. At one point the glow recedes, but then the fire whooshes up and past the truck, licking its hood at one point.

If there was a fundraiser version of “asking for the sale,” that was it, as an audible gasp went up in the room.

Guest speaker Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, whose family runs a cattle ranch in the Nicola Valley around Merritt, earlier described the incredible co-ordination she saw in Kamloops between disaster relief agencies and the countless volunteers working to help evacuated residents.

Her close relationship with some of the most affected families came through at one point in her speech. She teared up, recalling a phone call she made to the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association and hearing about “a couple of friends who have lost everything.”

“This is the toughest speech I’ve written in four years,” she said.

Guichon, whose ranching career has depended much upon knowing weather patterns and planning for them as best as she could, insisted that the fires, and the devastating flooding that gripped the Interior in the spring, are “climate change, no doubt.”

“If this doesn’t wake us up, then nothing will,” she said. “We have to wake up and change how we do things.”

She took a call from her daughter a couple days beforehand, who phoned to say 18 of their cows and five calves were found dead by the lake that morning, believed to be victims of bad water tainted by the fires.

Clearly fatigued by the past year’s battering back home, Guichon told those in the room, “It’s not just the donations that you make, it’s showing that you care, and that’s what keeps people going.”

Four executives from the Canadian Red Cross also attended, including B.C. and Yukon vice-president Kimberley Nemrava, who detailed how her organization is helping people as they adjust to life back home. As of last week the Red Cross had handed out roughly 12,000 After the Fire kits, filled with deodorizers, cleaning materials and other items to make the transition easier.

“These people will need help for a long time to come in the recovery stage,” Nemrava said. “Fires and disasters are a marathon, not a sprint.”

Event organizer John Donnelly, a former resident of Kamloops who used to travel through all of the affected areas for work, likened the support for the cause to communities helping a neighbour rebuild a barn.

“I just think we’re all privileged to be able to give back,” he said. “I’m just thrilled that this amount of people would come and out and show this amount of caring to give money to help those people.”

Donations to help B.C. wildfire victims can be made here, or by calling toll free to 1-800-418-1111.

editor@vicnews.com

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Smoke from wildfires around Williams Lake billows high into the sky. Photo contributed

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