Team B.C. prepares for Indigenous Games despite 'heavy situation' with fires back home

When 18-year-old Dreydon Thomas crouches into catcher position behind home plate at the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto, he'll be working overtime to keep his head in game and not on the wildfire situation at home in British Columbia.

With thousands on edge and facing evacuation, Team B.C. forges ahead for NAIG 2017

The British Columbia U19 women's softball team after it won a gold medal at the 2014 North American Indigenous Games in Regina. (Joni Frei)

When 18-year-old Dreydon Thomas crouches into catcher position behind home plate in Toronto, he'll be working overtime to keep his head in game and not on the wildfire situation at home in British Columbia.

Thomas's home was barely spared when a fire about five minutes north of the small town of Ashcroft, B.C., west of Kamloops, destroyed nearly 30 mobile homes.

"I'm just trying to keep my mind straight for going to Toronto," said Thomas, who was at the under-18 Softball B.C. provincial championships in Prince George when the fire situation went from bad to worse.

State of emergency

For the first time in 14 years, officials in B.C. have declared a provincewide state of emergency and thousands have been forced to leave their homes as more than 200 fires burn throughout the Interior region.

Amid the chaos of evacuations, highway and airport closures and heightened emotions are hundreds of athletes trying to make their way to Vancouver by Friday to board one of four chartered team flights to Toronto for the North American Indigenous Games.

The remains of mobile homes destroyed by wildfire are seen in Boston Flats as a fire burns on a mountain east of Cache Creek, B.C., on Sunday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"We don't want anybody taking any unnecessary risks to get to their flight," said Michelle Webster, coach of the under-19 women's softball team and interior regional co-ordinator for the Indigenous Sport, Physical Activity & Recreation Council.

While Thomas's team earned second place at provincials, he wasn't able to make it home for more than two days, then had to hit the road for Vancouver right away.

Thomas will be in the under-19 men's softball team at NAIG, which begins Sunday and runs through July 23.

'The situation's heavy'

Participants from 100 Mile House, B.C., were evacuated from the community last week and won't be able to return to their homes until at least July 18.

Meanwhile, residents in Williams Lake are under an evacuation order, with fire officials warning that the situation could worsen if the weather shifts at all in the favour of the many fires surrounding the city.

"The situation's heavy," said Webster, adding that there's going to be an impact on the the athlete's spirits.

There's already been an impact on the health of some athletes, as the smoke has created dire air-quality conditions in many areas.

Kyra Buchan plays with the U19 women's softball team and lives in Quesnel where the smoke has been triggering her asthma for days.

Like Thomas, Buchan was in Prince George for the Softball B.C. provincial championships when the fire situation suddenly worsened.

"I just beat the road closures in time," said Buchan.

"We got through 100 Mile and Williams Lake. We could see all the fires going through there," she added, coughing.

Holistic approach to wellness

Team B.C. officials say they haven't yet heard from anyone who has had to cancel their travel arrangements, though many have had to take significantly longer routes or opt to fly instead of drive.

Coaches and team managers have been in constant contact with athletes' families for past few weeks to prepare for the trip, but they're ready to help if things get worse.

Once everyone arrives safely, Webster said she'll shift her focus to making this year's NAIG the best possible experience for the athletes, some of whom have been preparing for the games for nearly a year.

"For many of our kids it's their first direct tie to their culture," she said, adding that she doesn't want them to miss out on a single moment of the experience.

Because of that, Webster hopes to honour the reality that the youth may be distracted and thinking of loved ones on the home front, but she hopes she can also help the team "take it all in."

She said her approach will be to honour the Indigenous model of holistic support, which means focusing on physical, mental and spiritual well-being for the team.

Webster hopes that will help the team re-create the success it had at the 2014 North American Indigenous Games, when Team B.C. brought home 160 medals for the overall title as well as the John Fletcher Spirit Award for teamwork, fair play, respect and integrity.

"We all know how to play softball, we're all good athletes," she said. "We need to just settle into ourselves and just take it pitch by pitch and inning by inning."

About the Author

Ash Kelly

Digital Producer

Ash Kelly is an associate producer for CBC Radio and online. Her CBC outdoor column, 'The Great Wide Open' focuses on nuanced stories about life outdoors. It airs province-wide every two weeks. You can find Ash and more of her stories on Twitter @AshDKelly.