Vancouver Sun, Page A01, 21-Aug-2023 'I don't know if my house is standing' By Gordon McIntyre Sandy Gilfillan is unsure if she'll have a home to return to in West Kelowna. But on Sunday Gilfillan was one of dozens of volunteers feeding fellow evacuees at the Lions/Rotary pancake breakfast and burger lunch outside the Jim Lind Arena, one of three emergency centres providing support to people forced to flee their homes because of wildfires in the Okanagan. "We served 400 pancakes this morning and so far I've sliced more than 200 hamburger buns," Gilfillan said mid-day. "I don't know if my house is still standing, but what am I supposed to do, sit alone with my thoughts and worry?" In 19 years, this is the sixth time Gilfillan has evacuated her home, which sits on the forest's edge. She began packing two weeks ago. She has two daughters nearby so has a place to stay, unlike many of those appreciating the hot meals, pet food, towels, toiletries and other amenities offered at the West Kelowna centre. Fire chiefs said on Sunday the fight against the rampaging wildfires around Lake Okanagan seems to have turned a corner. "Things are finally looking better," West Kelowna chief Jason Brolund said, with an army of 500 firefighters engaged in a battle that is now in a new phase. "I'm finally feeling like we're moving forward, rather than moving backwards, and that's a great feeling for all of us to have. "In saying that, make no mistake, there will be difficult days ahead." No more homes in West Kelowna had been destroyed by the McDougall Creek wildfire in the preceding 24 hours, Brolund said, and it was possible to begin to "talk about recovery." As of Sunday, 30,000 people in B.C. were under evacuation orders and a provincial state of emergency remained in effect. Lake Country fire chief Darren Lee became emotional as he paid tribute to firefighters, some of whom had fought to save their own communities from destruction. "You know, for thousands of years regular people step up to be warriors to protect their villages, protect their neighbours ... there's people out there working 36, 48-hour shifts, and they take an absolute beating," Lee said, choking up. "They know their family's being evacuated while they're trying to defend their neighbour's home and they just keep going." No new evacuation orders were added overnight Saturday to those already in place, covering thousands of properties across the province. Kelowna's Robert Pullen and his husband Warren got a knock on their door on Thursday night from a neighbour, and estimate they had about 10 minutes to get out the door as fast-advancing flames from Knox Mountain approached. "What's going to happen now?" Warren said. "Who knows? "It happened so quick and, you know what? Tomorrow we might not have a home." Paul Mann, along with his parents Ruby and Bobby and their four dogs have been sleeping in their vehicles - a Chrysler 200 and a compact Mercedes SUV - in West Kelowna since evacuating their home next to Shannon Lake on Thursday night. "We kind of were lost for the first two hours, we didn't even know where to call and where to go," Paul said. "We sort of just thought we can make our own plans, but that didn't work." Like everyone else, they're in the long queue of people awaiting word they can go home. Many Kelowna stores and restaurants are closed because of the fires and smoke, including some pharmacies. Curtis Fieseler, a pharmacist, said business at his open store has been slow, but that a lot of the customers who come in are picking up replacement prescriptions for the meds they forgot to bring with them or were unable to go back for, and for masks and respiratory issues. Fieseler and his wife stayed in their motorhome Thursday night before crashing with friends, and an elderly couple and their dogs are now staying in the motorhome. Power has been cut to most homes, meaning people are unable to monitor their home CCTVs, so Fieseler has been heading up the steep incline of Mount Boucherie, a rocky monolith that rises above Jim Lind Arena from across the highway, to take photos of people's homes to share on the sundry Facebook groups that have popped up in support of evacuees. "I've been riding my bike to and from work," he said. "And then the last three days when I head home, I ride my bike up this mountain and take pictures of the neighbourhood and share with the community. "There's a good view. I filter out the smoke a little bit and share so that at least, you know, part of that community can sleep a little bit easier at night." In Kelowna, the service centre for evacuees is set up at the arena Prospera Place, where cots line the floor. Terry Smith, a Kelowna resident for 40 years but currently between homes, and his roommate Linda were taking shelter at the rink along with their life's possessions after being evacuated from their motel room. "They've been doing an awesome job here, 100 per cent as far as I'm concerned," Smith, 62, said. "Last night, before my roommate and I found out about here, we were going to sleep in the bush, pack up a bunch of blankets and that was it." Hearing about Prospera Place, however, they waited in vain for a bus, Smith said, and finally hitchhiked. "I don't know how long we'll be stuck in here, I didn't even grab a coat," he said, one eye on updates on the TV screen above. "I just want to get back into the motel." Alexa Creelman of Vancouver was in Kelowna staying with her mom Wendy in Glenmore Highlands, in town to finalize September wedding plans. "Taking care of frivolous things, it seems now," Creelman said. Her dad Gene was fishing in northern Saskatchewan while mom and daughter were watching in disbelief as flames soared into the sky across the lake in West Kelowna Thursday night. That's when Alexa got a warning text from a friend in San Francisco telling her the fire had spread to their side of the Okanagan Lake. "It was within 10 minutes of the fire jumping the lake," Alexa said. "(Her San Francisco friend) said, 'The fire just jumped the lake right near your parents' house.'" The two began packing immediately and spent the three nights crashing in three separate households before driving to Vancouver on Sunday. The Creelmans and everyone else Postmedia talked to couldn't say enough about the community spirit. People opening their homes, their RVs and cabins, the work the Gospel Mission, Salvation Army, service clubs, neighbours and strangers have done. And Sally Gilfillan remained hopeful the wind direction holds and spares her home and property that was surrounded by flames just days ago. "I've got a place to stay," the 77-year-old said. "And I will have a house again, one way or another. "It is what it is." With files from The Canadian Press firstname.lastname@example.org
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