British Columbia

Gone for good: wildfire evacuees find work in other cities, leaving Williams Lake short-staffed

Williams Lake residents were ordered out of the city in July. Now, some are never coming back.

Residents of Williams Lake were ordered out of the city in July; now, some are never coming back

The Williams Lake Wal-Mart has been posting multiple job openings in the weeks since reopening following a wildfire evacuation in July. (Wil Fundal/CBC)

When a wildfire evacuation order for Williams Lake was lifted, Chrissie Gertzen prepared for her customers' return — only to discover some of her employees were never coming back.

"We probably lost a little under a third of our staff," said Gertzen, who owns the city's Dairy Queen.

​"We had some families leave the community and not come back. I had three new hires that chose not to come back, so yeah, we're definitely in the process of hiring and training which is odd for this time of year for us."

Residents put up a welcome home sign in downtown Williams Lake when an evacuation order was lifted for the city. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Mayor Walt Cobb says the lack of employees around town is noticeable.

"I've been in places where they say, 'sorry we can't accommodate you because we don't have staff,'" he said. 

"They found jobs while they were away and decided not to come home."

Residents of Williams Lake were ordered out of the city on July 15, and not allowed to return until July 27. An evacuation alert was lifted Aug. 15, but some are choosing to stay away permanently.

The McDonald's in Williams Lake was unable to return to regular hours for several weeks following a wildfire evacuation due to a loss of employees. (Google Street View)

"Every business looks like they're in the same boat when you look in the newspaper and see all the hiring ads," Gertzen said.

"I've talked to lots of small and big business owners and the feedback is generally the same. It seems pretty consistently 20 to 30 per cent loss of staff."

While they were gone, they still needed the income and they were offered jobs ... people have to work- Claudia Blair

The jobs people have left for are diverse. Gertzen said one former employee started working in a dental office in Prince George, while another is at a mill further north.

Williams Lake Chamber of Commerce executive director Claudia Blair said she's personally spoken with several people who have no plans to return to the city.

"They said, you know, while they were gone, they still needed the income and they were offered jobs," she said. "And people have to work."

Escaping trauma

Blair also said the reasons for leaving weren't always as simple as a job offer.

"Some of them were traumatized," she said. "There's people that I've talked to that just can't believe how [the wildfires] affected them ... it's something hard to get over."

Cobb said he's heard the same.

Wildfires forced residents out of Williams Lake in July for nearly two weeks, and smoke continues to cause issues in the community. (Supplied/Kaitlyn Dorion)

"One [family] in particular I know said they were never coming back to Williams Lake. It was that traumatic for them to have to evacuate, and the fires were so close," he said. "I guess they have to make those decisions."

However, he said it bothers him the wildfires have cost his city residents.

"We don't want to lose any of our people," he said. "I've heard in one case, a mechanic left ... the skilled labour, we don't want to lose."

'A beautiful community'

Blair said while Williams Lake is definitely dealing with challenges, she's convinced the city will recover.

 "Our streets are busy. Our shops are busy. There are business opportunities," she said.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb (third from left) poses with firefighters and employees at the Dairy Queen during an evacuation order in the city. While the owners of the restaurant chose to stay in order to serve first responders during the evacuation, several of their employees left and are not returning after finding work elsewhere. (Williams Lake Dairy Queen/Facebook)

"It's a beautiful community and a lot of people don't want to go, and they aren't going."

Gertzen is also looking on the bright side. She doesn't blame anyone who left and said she's been successful in hiring replacements. 

She also has a message for anyone considering moving into the Cariboo region.

"If you're looking for a job right now, it's a great time."


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca. You can also send encrypted messages using Signal to 250.552.2058.

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