British Columbia·Feature

Kamloops Powwow grounds transformed into makeshift evacuee camp

The Tk'emlups Powwow grounds are playing host to about 300 hundred people who have made their way into Kamloops after being forced out of their homes.

'It's an open door,' says Chief Fred Seymour of the Kamloops Indian Band

A spiritual gathering place for Kamloops First Nations typically full of music and colour has been transformed into a makeshift camp for wildfire evacuees.

The Tk'emlups Powwow grounds are playing host to about 300 hundred people who have made their way into Kamloops after being forced out of their homes.

"It's an open door," said Chief Fred Seymour of the Kamloops Indian Band. "Until you're in that situation being displaced, you don't know how your house is or when you'll move back — we're here to try and make it comfortable for everybody."

Evacuees campers and RVs are parked at the Kamloops Powwow grounds. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

The majority of campers are First Nations, many of whom left reserves near Williams Lake.

A Cariboo Regional District spokesperson says First Nations have not been included in the province's estimate of 40,000 who have been impacted by evacuation orders, making that number likely higher than it is.

The district says it is working with a community liaison to determine that number but that information would most likely come from the bands themselves.

At the powwow grounds, Seymour says donations have poured in, which has allowed volunteers to help serve three meals a day to evacuees.

Donations of toys and bikes for children await evacuees at the Kamloops Powwow grounds. (Lien Yeung/CBC)
Rachel Jeff from Williams said she packed everything she could into her truck, not knowing when she could go home. (Lien Yeung/CBC)
Edna Lulua sits beside other First Nations Elders who have been displaced after leaving for an annual meeting in Campbell River, B.C. but weren't able to get back home. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

'I just want to be home'

Elders and those who arrive without camping gear are provided with one of the 120 beds set up at a nearby school. 

But despite those small comforts, evacuees are still pining for the obvious.

"I just want to be home," said Edna Lulua who has been away from Redstone Reserve, approximately 170 km from Williams Lake for nearly a week. "My family is at home."

She says four of her children remained in that area to help cook after another First Nation fled into their community.

Besides missing home, some evacuees struggled to breathe as a thick, inescapable haze covered the grounds on Monday.

Payton Thomsas-Thorne and her family were evacuated from Williams Lake. After only being in Kamloops for a day, she said her eyes were irritated from the thick smoke and found it challenging to breathe. (Lien Yeung/CBC)
James Thorne (centre) gave his eyes a rub after sitting out in smoky conditions at the Kamloops Powwow grounds. He left Williams Lake with nearly a dozen of his family members. (Lien Yeung/CBC)
Aliza Paul who was evauated from Alkali Lake chose to stay at the Kamloops Powwow grounds so she could keep her dog, Nemo, with her. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Like a family

With no indication as to when residents can return home or go back to work, James Thorne from Williams Lake said he felt grateful necessities were being provided free of charge.

"We've been here in the past in powwows," he said. "Normally it's a place where they make money on the camping but now they've opened the campgrounds as a refuge ... it's really nice."

He says the massive camp had become like a family of people who are all in the same boat.

It gave him a chance to speak with people he had seen before in his neighbourhood but never stopped to talk to.

Kelsey Pop was visiting his family who was staying at the powwow grounds after being ordered to leave Soda Creek. (Lien Yeung/CBC)
Tents of evacuees sit in a semi-circle on the Kamloops Powwow grounds. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Kamloopa Powwow could be postponed

In three weeks, the Kamloops Indian Band is scheduled to host its much-anticipated annual powow but it might cancel the event if the wildfires continue to keep evacuees out of their homes.

"We're here until day's end," said Seymour. "Because this is our priority."

Campers and RVs can be seen through the Kamloops Powwow grounds. (Lien Yeung/CBC)