Ten year old Kayden, flanked by eight-year-old twins Alora and Lily, show their appreciation for the Priestley family who housed the wildfire evacuees during their time in Ucluelet. (Photo - Delberta Dufresne)

B.C. Wildfire evacuees thank Ucluelet

“We appreciate them opening up their hearts and everything to us.”

A Chimney Lake local feels fortunate to have been surrounded by Ucluelet’s love while she and her family were terrifyingly cutoff from home by a wildfire evacuation last month.

Delberta Dufresne was diagnosed with colon cancer last year and the significant scare that came from that prompted her family to start taking at least one holiday together each year.

“I had no symptoms whatsoever, but I was at that age where the doctor said you have to have a colonoscopy. Believe me, we were all shocked when they said I had a very big mass and I had to have surgery immediately,” Dufresne said.

“Everybody had kind of a life scare so the family said every year, we’re going on a family vacation.”

This year’s vacation brought them to Vancouver Island in early-July, but a rough start got even worse as two days after arriving in Parksville a medical emergency landed Dufresne at Nanaimo General Hospital and, after being released roughly 12 hours later, she and her family learned they could not head home as planned.

Chimney Lake is roughly a 30 kilometres from Williams Lake, where wildfires caused an evacuation order to be issued on July 7.

While some members of the family traveled back, Dufresne continued on to Ucluelet with her daughter and three grand children and hoped the situation would be resolved by the time they expected to leave on July 16, but the updates they were receiving about the fires weren’t positive.

“They were raging and more were developing,” she said. “When we started reading and hearing from people that it was going to be a longer time, we just thought ‘This is crazy. Totally crazy.’”

After arriving in Ucluelet, Dufresne was thrilled with the graciousness of their accommodation’s owners at Terrace Beach Resort.

“We were wondering if we could book at least another day or something because we weren’t sure where we were going. We just had a knot in our stomachs,” she said.

“Norma and Lorne Priestley gave us a place to stay for a week, or two weeks, whatever we needed, until we could go home. It was very nice of them because we were just all toiling inside not sure what to do. We couldn’t go home so we stayed to try to keep the kids amused a little bit and to keep their minds off it.”

The family stayed at the resort for several days before moving into the Priestleys home for another 10.

“We felt for them,” Lorne said. “This poor family couldn’t go home.”

Dufresne said she, her daughter and her grandkids, Kayden, 10 and eight-year-old twins Alora and Lily didn’t have much in the way of clothes or supplies and the uncertainty over the duration of their stay was daunting.

“We got to stay a little longer and enjoy your beautiful part of the world, but you still have that feeling just like somebody’s punched you in the tummy because you’re worried about everything,” she said. “These people were so kind to us and so generous…We’re very fortunate that people we didn’t even know opened up their hearts and gave us a place to stay and some support when we weren’t in our familiar surroundings.”

She said the family took in Ukee Days and were warmed by the town’s embrace.

“We appreciate them opening up their hearts and everything to us. It was awesome,” she said. “The kids were actually in the Gumboot Toss, which was great.”

She added Courtney Johnson of Image West gave the kids a stuffed animal, which proved valuable.

“You don’t think that a little thing like that would help, but they sleep with it every night,” she said.

She said the family travelled to Alberta on July 24 to be with her husband’s cousins and stayed several days after the evacuation order was lifted.

“You don’t want to put anybody in jeopardy with all that smoke in the air and everything,” she said. “The other thing is you can never tell now when any of the highways are going to be closed because of all of these fires on the routes from Vancouver to the Interior…It’s crazy for everybody.”

Dufresne emailed the Westerly News on Aug. 8 to say the family had arrived home safely.

The Tofino Legion is hosting a fundraising concert for the BC Wildfires Red Cross Fund on Aug. 11 that will feature a family barbecue from 4-8 p.m. and live music from the Boom Booms from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Anyone wanting to donate to the cause is encouraged to contact Duncan McMaster at 250-266-0065 or Jessica Walders at 403-829-1206.

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