Several residents at Williams Lake Seniors Village still get emotional when they talk about last year’s wildfire evacuation.
On Wednesday, Aug. 22, residents enjoyed a party to celebrate the one-year anniversary when the 240 residents all returned safely home, recalling how they evacuated from the complex on July 9, 2017 and had all returned by Aug. 22.
For 89-year-old Sture Kallman, talking about the treatment he received while being evacuated and the leadership shown by Williams Lake mayor Walt Cobb caused him to weep. “He made you feel so good,” he said of watching Mayor Walt Cobb on the news during the evacuation. “We felt like we were going to get over this and things were going to get better.”
Cobb and Prince George mayor Lyn Hall had a big load on their shoulders, he added.
“They were the ones that had to make the final decisions, and I thought they did a tremendous job.”
In the days leading up to the evacuation staff told the residents to pack a bag and be prepared, Kallman said.
“I thought it was good that they looked ahead, because sure enough, one day they called us up and told us we had to be downstairs in 10 minutes.”
Residents travelled by bus and some by ambulance and on stretchers, said manager Tammy Deausy.
Kallman said he remembered on the bus trip up to Prince George they were quite worried because the smoke was so heavy.
“When we arrived in Prince George the place we went to first was full already, but the girls from here they stood on the street waiting to find another place they could take us.”
For many of the Seniors Village residents that place ended up being the University of Northern B.C. dorms.
“When the bus stopped to let us out there were at least 25 or 30 people there giving us a tremendous welcome,” Kallman said. “They were singing and they took us in and wrote down our details. They asked us if we were hungry.”
Kallman said he was fascinated by the fact that Prince George could receive 10,000 or 11,000 people in a day or two.
“That is a lot of people for any city. But you know, there was no shortage of food or anything. I cannot say enough good about them, plus they were so friendly and nice in every way.”
One of the nicest, people he met was UNBC project manager Brenda Schlesinger who ended up taking him under her wing.
When Schlesinger learned Kallman had been a tight-rope walker in his youth back in Sweden, and once performed at a festival in Prince George, she arranged to take him to the circus the next day because it was in town.
“Sure enough, the next day she came and she said ‘I got front row seats.’ It was a tremendous feeling for me because I hadn’t seen the circus for 60 years.”
Kallman also told her he had worked in a sawmill at Aleza Lake, 60 kilometres east of Prince George, 65 years ago.
Two days later, Schlesinger picked him up and drove him out there to have a look around.
Seniors Village resident Ruth Lord, 100, said she still remembers feeling shocked as they got on the bus to leave Williams Lake, but once she got to Prince George she was OK.
“The volunteers took us shopping,” Lord recalled. “When we got home we were sad because we didn’t get pampered anymore.”
Jessie Voth, 91, said it was a time of uncertainty.
“We packed just a little amount of clothing because we didn’t realize we would be gone for so long,” Voth said.
Echoing the other residents, she said the volunteers in Prince George were wonderful.
“They went beyond the call of duty and made us feel so welcome and comfortable.”
As for the one-year anniversary party, Voth thought it was a great idea.
“The year’s gone by so fast, but it’s so wonderful that we are home safe and sound this year.”
Clara Spletzer did not evacuate to Prince George, but went to stay with her daughter on Dog Creek Road initially.
When Williams Lake area was evacuated she went to Kelowna with her daughter.
“I still remember them coming over the intercom saying, ‘sorry, but you are being evacuated,’” she said.
Marketing manager Alex Froese said aside from being housed at UNBC, more than 100 of the residents stayed in long-term care facilities in Prince George and some residents went with their families to Prince George or other places.
Entertaining the residents at the party were Rick Mathews, on the harmonica, and Brian Sawyer on the guitar.
Froese said the day they were evacuating Mathews, who works at Seniors Village as a care-aid, played his harmonica in the lobby while the residents were getting on the Northern Health buses to evacuate.
“I’ve lived in Williams Lake for 50 years and it was a very emotional time,” Mathews said.
“I played to calm myself down too.”