Sunday 22 August 2021

Living under constant threat

The call comes at 11:39 on Sunday morning. "The smoke is getting really bad here and it's extremely windy. You better come home and pack our important stuff."
I've been expecting and dreading this call since June 30. Ever since Lytton burnt down during the worst heat wave in history, we've all been wondering if we would be next. Is it our turn now?

I'm in Ashcroft when he phones me, on my weekend on call, and I still have 20 hours left. But every community has been impacted by the terrible wildfires that are raging across BC, and when I call the hospital and tell them that it looks like we are about to be evacuated, all they say is "we understand. Go home and save your animals". 

I tear through the house, packing my stuff, with tears running down my cheeks and panic threatening to overwhelm me. "Calm down, it's gonna be okay," I chant under my breath, forcing myself to take deep, yogic breaths. The breaths help, the chant doesn't. What if I don't make it home in time? What if the fire actually reaches us? What is gonna happen to our animals? What if, what if, what if??

Ashcroft is 100 kilometres away from home. There are two routes I usually take, but both are closed due to wildfires. The only one remaining is a detour that's twice as long, and I have horror visions that it might get closed before I make it home. I would be trapped, which doesn't bear thinking about. 

I gas up, and make one quick stop at the hospital to grab my things and say thanks and goodbye to the weekend staff. One of the nurses gives me her phone number with the offer to take our animals if we need a place to go, and a patient overhearing us calls "good luck!" after me. 
We all need it. 

After a nerve-wrecking 2-hour drive I finally arrive at home. It's just after 2 pm. The sky is orange-brown, the sun a hazy red disc that's barely visible. The wind is whipping my hair crazily around my head and there's smoke everywhere. The wind is blowing the notorious Lytton Creek fire that destroyed Lytton and over 50,000 hectares directly towards us.

I jump out of the car with my arms full and race into the house. Where to start? For a long moment I'm paralyzed, unable to decide what to do first. I drop everything on the floor, sink to my knees and burst into tears again. The dogs snuggle close, licking my face, and for a few minutes I stay there, crying and stroking their soft furs. "Okay team," I eventually say out loud. "First things first: laundry."

Doing laundry calms me, and while I sort and load and add soap, a plan forms in my head. Once the washing machine is running, I get my suitcase (that hasn't seen any action since May 2019) out of the basement and start filling it with our important papers, passports, laptop, medication, my camera, and other bits and pieces I want to keep. 
I pack a second suitcase with toiletries, clothes, dog and cat food. 

Rich is outside doing chores, making his own list. We move a trailer load of hay to a friend's place, and then Rich's tractor. I save files from my desktop computer to an external drive. Our neighbours are hauling boats, trailers, dirt bikes, quads, and whatever else they want to save to - where? I have no idea. We don't know where the illusive safe spot is, but the panic is contagious, so everybody is moving stuff somewhere

And then the car is packed, and we wait. It's still windy and smokey, and the sky is getting dark, almost black. It looks like a storm is coming, and the atmosphere is loaded with an almost tangible threat. We keep looking at the horizon, checking for flames, texting friends to find out if they have heard anything. "Do you know where the fire is? How far away? Is it coming? Will we have to leave?"

Eventually darkness falls, and there it is: the tell-tale red glow. I get a text from a friend living not far from us: "The order just came in: we are getting evacuated."
Shortly after I get the official update on my phone, and soon after that the police cars are making their way up the hill, knocking on peoples' doors to tell them to get out. 

"What are we gonna do?" I whisper.
"Let's wait and see," Rich replies. 
We watch the procession of trucks and trailers snake slowly down the hill, followed by the police cars with their red and blue flashing lights. 
And then it's just us. We silently watch the red glow veering off to the side and bypassing us, heading directly towards town. The friend who has our hay and tractor is also being evacuated, and Merritt is put on alert. At around midnight I fall asleep, emotionally drained, but Rich stays up to keep watch until dawn.

The next morning dawns bright, and with a clear sky! We can see the blue of the sky for the first time in a week. Everything is calm, the air is fresh and clean. 
There's no sign of fire or smoke, and the best part: it's cool and around midday it's starting to rain. Hallelujah!

Over the next few hours we learn that most ranchers and people with livestock have stayed behind as well. We want to look after our animals for as long as possible. 
A friend who fled to Merritt couldn't find a place to stay with all the hotels and motels being full, so she slept in her car and goes home the next day. There are roadblocks preventing people to return home, and she is only allowed through because her husband needs medication urgently. The police officer sternly makes her promise that she will come right back - she promises, and then barricades herself in her house. 

The thing is: Merritt looks worse than where we live. We've seen pictures of the hills around Merritt burning, and the main escape routes are all closed (including the Coquihalla highway leading to Chilliwack, our escape point) except for one last remaining route. 
Merritt, August 15

Nowhere feels safe, and the updates are patchy and unsatisfying. What to do? Whom to believe? Where is safe? We decide to keep an eye out, our escape car ready, and to trust our instincts. We also stay in touch with friends around us, exchanging news and keeping each other sane. 

The next few days are a symphony of contrasts: one moment I'm so filled with worry and dread that I want to vomit. The next we're receiving multiple offers from friends (and people we never expected it from) to help us evacuate our animals; offers that are so genuinely kind and generous, they make me weep with gratitude. 

We're talking to people who say we're totally safe now, the rain put the fire out. 
We're talking to people who are panicking and swear they gonna move to Nova Scotia to escape this shit. 
I see posts on Facebook that tell me that disobeying evacuation orders is a criminal act. 
I turn off Facebook.

I'm loading up the first season of Dexter and binge-watch with my husband for 9 hours, forgetting for hours at a time that we might lose everything. 
The best part? We are truly bonding for the first time in months

That's what you may not know about living under constant threat to your safety:
It will wreak havoc on your relationship. You thought you would automatically be bonded tighter together than ever?
Think again.  

This is not a threat like the imminent dark forces marching in like they do in action movies. It's way more subtle than that. 

It's me driving 100km through burnt-down areas to a town filled with smoke for 7 days in a row, arriving at a work place where we're short-staffed and stressed, while at home everything is clear-skied, clean-aired perfection. 
I come home hollowed out, filled with grief and worry, while Rich's days have been filled with nothing but sunshine, joy and summer perfection. I tell him what it's been like for me, but unless you've experienced it yourself, you can't relate. Besides, I'm short-tempered and bitchy, and he's had a good day until I came home, so why can't I just relax and enjoy the beautiful day? 

I can't, because I haven't slept properly in two months.
I can't, because I'm losing my hair due to stress. 
I can't, because I'm so anxious and depressed, I want to scream. Or hit something. Or someone. 
I can't, because if I listen to one more evacuee's story, I might never stop crying.
I can't, because I've been gaining weight, and I don't feel like myself, and I don't know if it's because of stress or because of perimenopause. I can't deal with perimenopause right now.

I can't, because I'm insanely afraid of the 4th wave. I don't think our health system can handle it.
I'm really scared for what's coming next. 

Health care workers are leaving in droves due to burnout, stress, and peoples' reluctance to get the vaccine. 
Here's my co-worker's point of view:
"I hardly ever speak about this stuff on social media, however:
This is the actual situation at Royal Inland Hospital here in Kamloops. It is a dire situation. Bonnie Henry hasn’t been here to witness first hand, so she shouldn’t be allowed to say it’s not dire.
Between the Covid numbers, clinics closing, and the fires displacing people, on top of the already hugely high number of patients they see day to day, it’s very very bad. I walked through one of the many waiting rooms for the ER the other day and it was insane, the amount of people waiting and needed medical care, which they aren’t getting quickly because the nurses they do have (along with lab/medical imaging etc) are dealing with unvaccinated Covid patients that are taking up the beds and their time is frustrating at best.

I have seen ER nurses crying, I have talked with them, they are at a breaking point, they need help. It’s not fair what’s happening. I don’t know the solution, but not overwhelming the beds and avoiding a 4th wave at all cost is important. At this point, I’m afraid for my family to get sick and need emergent care, nothing against the staff. THEY ARE DOING EVERYTHING THEY CAN.
But the system is overwhelmed with Covid and under-staffed."

I'm a health care worker living and working in Interior Health. 
I'm also a woman who's been living with well-documented anxiety and depression for years, who's had to deal with severe staff shortage, evacuation alerts + order for 5 days, and the pending threat of a 4th wave of Covid-19. 

I'm at my breaking point. The fire threat is still looming. So is everything else waiting for me when I return to work tomorrow. 
I'm returning tomorrow because I love my work and I'm devoted to my coworkers. 

But what you see right now is the shakiest house of cards built ever on a shaky sand dune. 

Give it one little upheaval - a little uptick in Covid cases, the fire coming too close for comfort, one wrong word from my husband - and I WILL LOSE IT FOR GOOD.

I've been at my breaking point a little too long. 

And you know what? So have you. You're all in for a very rude awakening the next few months. 
We've all had it

Us health care workers are the canaries in the mine. We've smelled the danger in the air before you - now it's about to reach you. We are all in danger.  




  1. I am SO sorry you are going through this awful time. I know nothing I can say can help, but I just wanted you to know I hear you and feel your pain. I am crying tears at your story and I know it's the story of so many others. I don't understand people not getting the vaccine. It makes me angry that their selfishness is hurting everyone. I live in Florida and I always say we just one hurricane evacuation to put me over the edge. Please know people are thinking about you and all your fellow healthcare workers and pray for you every day. Please try to hold on and take care of yourself.

    1. Thank you Debbi, you're so kind!
      The pandemic has been so stressful, combined with the fires and the constant upheaval about mask wearing and vaccination it's all a bit too much.
      I'm hoping very much that better times are coming soon 🙏

  2. I can't imagine dealing with the pandemic and the bushfires at once. We have a bushfire plan so we know what we would take and where we would go - luckily the fires closest to us haven't caused any real risk though, although it makes it so hard to breath outdoors and so scary to see the haze in the sky and the redness. Floods are something we have evacuated for a few times, thank goodness having lost nothing when we returned.

    Hope you are having a good weekend :) We are enjoying the warm spring-like weather for the last days of winter.

    Away From The Blue

    1. You have to deal with fires AND flooding? That's terrible.
      We've never had the fires so close to us, so this is a new experience for us. The smoke we've dealt with before, but not the evacuation and the worry and seeing friends lose everything. It's awful.

      But on the bright side, we can see the end of the fire season, our fall is about to start, we've had rain and it has cooled down considerably. Enjoy your upcoming spring! I know that we're all eager for fall here.


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