British Columbia

'All he heard was the word die': father says son's past fire trauma empowers him today

Children are among those impacted the most by the wildfires raging in B.C.'s Interior. Having to be forcefully removed from their homes can induce a lot of stress and anxiety, child psychiatric expert says.

'I think we sometimes think that they're OK and then don't realize the trauma that they're internalizing'

Samuel Trickett is volunteering with The Salvation Arm at The Sandman Centre and using the trauma he experienced living through a large house fire as motivation to help B.C. wildfire child evacuees. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Children are among those impacted the most by the wildfires raging in B.C.'s Interior. Having to be forcefully removed from their homes can induce a lot of stress and anxiety, a child psychiatric expert says.

But a Kamloops, B.C., child, far from being on the receiving end of support, is instead providing it because he's lived through something similar himself.

Twelve-year-old Samuel Trickett has spent a week volunteering with the Salvation Army, providing aide for fire victims at Thompson Rivers University and at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops.

Although he's not been directly impacted by the current fires, other than dealing with the thick smoke from neighbouring blazes, in 2009, he almost lost his home in Burnaby to a house fire.

"About four days in [of living there] our fireplace caught on fire and our walls were made out of cedar and our ceilings were made out of cedar," said Samuel's father, Paul Trickett, about their old home on Burns Street. 

Trickett family, Lisa (top left), Samuel (top centre), Paul (top right), Payton (bottom left) and Natalie (bottom right) experienced a house fire in 2009 at their home on Burns Street in Burnaby, B.C. (The Salvation Army)

"He [Samuel] was four years old and obviously ran down the stairs. It was smoke filled and he was just very traumatized and not understanding what was happening."

Paul says Samuel heard firefighters sternly tell his parents they could have died, because they had put out the fire themselves and that it stuck with him.

"We can remember for at least six months he was just traumatized, saying, you know, my mom and dad could have died, and we had to reassure him," said Paul.

Eight years later, when Samuel heard about the current wildfires, he immediately wanted to get involved.

"He [Samuel] was angry that he didn't come the first day and help, and then I talked to him about it, and he said: 'Well, I know how I felt and if there are other kids or people there, I just want them to feel relieved,' and I thought wow, I think fire is just part of his DNA now,'" said Paul.

At the Sandman Centre, Samuel was able to achieve that. He passed out, food, coffee, water and some encouraging words.

Samuel Trickett helps those who affected by the wildfires. He says he knows what it's like to lose so much and fear for your loved ones. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

"What we are trying to do here is calm people down, get their minds off the fire, trying to give them sort of something nice," said Samuel.

Samuel's resiliency after such a traumatic experience can be attributed largely to his parents who made sure he was listened to after his experience.

"I think we sometimes think that they're OK and then don't realize the trauma that they're internalizing, so having them talk about it and share how they're feeling and then just reaffirming their feelings but then sharing them again," said Paul.

Dr. Jana Davidson, psychiatrist in chief at B.C.'s Children's Hospital, says dialogue is very important after these traumatic events.

"Continue to communicate with your child, to be there to talk with them, to maintain daily routines as best as you can and to let them know that there are people there to support them through this," said Davidson.

Part of maintaining those daily routines involves positive activities, she says — a service that is being offered at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops. 

On Monday, Uncle Chris the Clown entertained child evacuees with balloon making and story telling, while their parents were waiting to register for shelter.

Uncle Chris the Clown keeps children entertained at the Kamloops Evacuation Centre. (Denis Dossman/CBC)

Paul says bringing the children some kind of normality is no small thing.

One parent brought in 50 soccer balls one day at the Thompson Rivers University shelter. Paul says gestures like this make a big difference for parents who are in crisis mode and trying to care for a child.

With files from Jesse Johnston