‘Is there a volcano over there?’ - The Orca
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‘Is there a volcano over there?’

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Jody Vance was a little too close for comfort to BC’s latest devastating wildfire.

“Is there a volcano over there?”

As we crested the Merritt Summit, that’s the quote from my son that will be forever burned into my memory banks.

He had a point: the plume from Lytton looked terrifyingly Mount St. Helen’s-like. Otherworldly. Something no one wants to see, in person.

The three of us in the car were so struck by it, none of us even thought to take a photo. It was too scary, too real, too right-in-front-of-us.

Little did we know, we were watching an entire community get wiped out. The community that had made international headlines for shattering all-time heat records, becoming a late night talk show punchline.

Wildfires have always been horrifying to hear of, and devastating to see footage of. But boy, you never forget when one lands on your doorstep.

I vividly recall the first time our family experienced just wildfire smoke in our neighborhood. We had just walked out of a matinee in downtown Vancouver and it felt like a scene from Bladerunner. You couldn’t help but shake your head to try to make sense of it. Wait…what?

It was eerie and unnerving – and yet still not even close to experiencing the true threat. I was a Smaugust Novice.

The true terror of wildfire is to be threatened by flames licking at your doorstep, or blocking your only road out.

We arrived in Kamloops at 6pm and it was 47 degrees Celsius. Not “feels like 47,” but the actual temperature – blowdryer on high, too close to your face hot. Pumping gas at the filling station, the pump spilled on my sandalled foot, as though it was feeling extra pressure to spout.

It scared me, because it was so hot. The car was an oven.

I wiped the gas off my foot and jumped back in. Smoke, gas, heat: this was not how I envisioned things. We were ready for Juneuary.

We stocked up on water, considered ice cream or popsicles only to realize that everyone already had the same thought. I found myself wasting time driving around with A/C, knowing that our rustic cabin destination would be in the 40s.

Lucky for us, the lake helped. Unlucky for us, that lake was on an access road that is the only way in…or out.

By Thursday keeping up on all things BC wildfire was priority 1A.

Trying our best to get about “living that lake life” we’d been talking and dreaming about for the better part of two years took a backseat.

I found myself with a stack of puzzle boxes and games made into a makeshift tripod under my laptop and standing by to go live worldwide on Al Jazeera English. Next thing you know I’m talking about what the Premier had said at the hastily assembled presser to 100 million global viewers in my anything-but-TV-ready “take a hike” t-shirt and tinted sunscreen.

It’s a blur and the our personal wildfire story hadn’t even happened yet.

The next day, two of the four of us were headed into town for supplies when we noticed a helicopter with a Bambi bucket headed to the ridge halfway to town. The telltale plume of a new fire clearly visible. I turned my car around – we would stay together.

Like the flip of a switch, it was on our doorstep.

Over the next nine hours we got to know our neighbours in a way that was nothing short of remarkable. A crisis does bring out the best in people.

We remained on high alert until well after midnight. Crews patrolling the hills kept looking for any signs of smoke or flame. Uneasily, we kept up with reports about a big fire in Kamloops that had one community running to their cars to bug out.

Both surreal and too real.

When that fire was contained (but not out) and the evacuation order lifted, we paused and exhaled…a little.

The stress this created is palpable and painful post-COVID. Straight out of the perpetual state of pandemic emergency, into a literal fire state of emergency – which climate change will likely mean more and more of. Whether we admit it or not.

It rained today. I closed my bedroom door and had an eruption of my own, blubbering tears of relief. But with more storms in the forecast, we now pray for rain and worry about lightning. Taking every precaution to fireproof is the new normal.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.

SWIM ON:

SWIM ON