As they fled, Lytton residents watched their community burn
'I could see it. I could smell it,' recalls one evacuee
Edith Loring-Kuhanga was in a Zoom meeting at home when she heard sirens whiz past her house on Fraser Street in Lytton, B.C.
Shortly after, she got a call from a colleague telling her she needed to get out of her home — immediately.
Loring-Kuhanga's suitcase was already packed because she was supposed to be going to Victoria the following day. She grabbed that and her computer and left.
"It just happened so fast," she told CBC Radio.
"People didn't have time to get their animals, people just didn't have time to get their personal belongings. I mean, I left all my photo albums. I left everything behind."
More than 1,000 people were forced to leave their homes on Wednesday evening as a wildfire tore through the small B.C. village, located northeast of Vancouver, following three days of record-breaking temperatures.
WATCH | Locals describe the devastation:
Ely Makeiv didn't even have a shirt on when he was forced to evacuate.
"I just grabbed my dogs and I just barely made it out," he said.
He had to stop twice on his way out of town because the thick smoke blanketing the roads made it impossible for him to see. Eventually, he made it out.
Bernice Abbott, who had been out of town, returned to Lytton on Wednesday to see her community engulfed in flames and smoke.
She had 15 minutes to retrieve essential items from her home.
"I immediately went and got all our IDs," she said.
"The kids just got back from being at a relative's house, so they had their bags packed already, so it was a matter of just my partner and I getting our bags and going."
As Nannette Phillips-Smith left her job at the local bank on Wednesday evening around 5:15 p.m., she noticed the fire up behind a motel. That's when she knew she had to get out of the area.
"I could see it. I could smell it," she said.
She left for Lillooet, not knowing where her family was, as there was no cell reception or internet.
She left behind her hometown, the place where she grew up, knowing her home would likely be gone when she returned.
Lillooet, north of Lytton, took in dozens of evacuees through the evening. A district representative said Thursday they had an official count of 188 people, but the number was likely higher as many evacuees had not formally registered.
Loring-Kuhanga, Abbott and Phillips-Smith all made it there safe, but scared.
"Anxiety is high," Abbott said Wednesday night. "We're still trying to get a hold, get into contact with family and friends."
Phillips-Smith didn't hear from her family until Thursday morning, as they finally made it into town after driving from the west side of Lytton to Lillooet.
Some people went instead to the community of Boston Bar, an evacuation centre in Merritt, or to Kamloops.
"I was scared," Phillips-Smith said. "I didn't know what to do. I was just worried about my family."
Loring-Kuhanga said some people were worried about the Mckay Creek fire burning 23 kilometres north of Lillooet. As of Thursday afternoon, that fire had grown to 150 square kilometres and remains out of control.
"People are a bit scared of that, too, because they're saying, you know, we just came from a fire and we're now driving back into another fire," Loring-Kuhanga said.
"If that fire continues to come toward Lillooet, then are we going to be really stuck? So I think a lot of our community members are thinking, you know, should we just go now and head to Kamloops and try to find a place there."
'Most homes' destroyed
The province said "most homes" and structures in the village, as well as the local ambulance station and RCMP detachment, were destroyed by the fire. A local member of parliament said 90 per cent of the village is gone.
As she described the devastation in her community to CBC's Gloria Macarenko, Loring-Kuhanga broke down into tears. As she did, one of her students from the school she worked at in Lytton, who was also at the Lillooet evacuation centre, came over to tell her it would all be OK.
She said she wishes people had had more time to grab the things that were important to them.
"I just think of all our community members," she said.
"So many of the people who have so many memories and history and generations of living in their homes and everything — and now it's all gone, you know, and I think that's what's so, so painful for people, is that a lot of them didn't have time."
Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately.
Evacuation centres have been set up in the following locations to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire:
- Castlegar: Castlegar Community Complex, 2102 6th Ave.
- Chilliwack: Chilliwack Senior Secondary, 46363 Yale Rd.
- Kelowna: Salvation Army, 1480 Sutherland Ave.
- Merritt: Merritt Civic Centre, 1950 Mamette Ave.
Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.
Those looking for loved ones can contact the Canadian Red Cross for family reunification services at 1-800-863-6582.
With files from Yvette Brend, Rhianna Schmunk and Brady Strachan