Evacuated from Canada’s “thermal dome”: inside makeshift shelters sheltering the last victims of the climate crisis

This is not a scene that visitors to Shulus Community Arena are used to seeing.

Where the hockey rink is usually located, table on table is stocked with clothing, food, hygiene products and other essentials. Part of the public galleries has been transformed into a makeshift dormitory.

Dozens of people rummage through donated property in the middle of the ice rink, trying to find clothes that fit and food to feed their families. They leave with plastic bags full of rations for the next few days. Volunteers scurry from table to table, replenishing donations arriving from the community faster than they can distribute them.

A child curls up under a table laden with coats and hoodies, screaming loudly. “You have to get out,” his father hisses.

“But I don’t want to be here. I want to go home, ”the child shouts.

Meanwhile, shocked residents of nearby fire-ravaged towns walk through the front door, ready to register their evacuee status.

For many escapees from the wildfires currently ravaging large swathes of the Canadian province of British Columbia, this converted ice hockey rink is their first experience of the small town of Merritt.

With a population of around 8,000, Merritt is 100 kilometers east of Lytton, the village that was wiped out by wildfires earlier this week, just days after breaking the temperature record highest ever in Canada for three consecutive days. , reaching 121.1F (49.5C).

Meteorologists say the unprecedented conditions are caused by a “thermal dome” over western Canada and parts of the US Pacific Northwest.

A thermal dome is an unofficial term given to an area of ​​warm air high up in the atmosphere that lingers over an area for an extended period of time, trapping heat below.

Main Street in Merritt, 100 miles east of Lytton, the village that was leveled by wildfires earlier this week

(Ashleigh Stewart)

It is estimated that 1,000 Lytton residents, and dozens more from neighboring communities now threatened by other wildfires raging across British Columbia, have fled their homes as a result of the fires. Merritt was the first port of call for many of them.

All hotels are now fully booked, as are many others within a two hour radius. Evacuees who couldn’t be allocated a hotel room (many were already at full capacity because it’s a statutory holiday weekend in Canada) stay in tents on people’s lawns, in crisis centers settled in town, or with friends and family. Merritt is currently shrouded in thick smoke from the nearby fires, his domineering mountain backdrop barely visible through the haze.

Daniel McKay arrived in Shulus on Thursday, after fleeing Lytton with his son and daughter as the blaze consumed the town, escaping to the nearby town of Lillooet. His house was one of the few to have been spared from the flames. After a night in Lillooet, the family received a $ 25 fuel voucher and were asked to travel to Merritt due to smoke from the nearby fires that enveloped the town. He has made the hockey rink his home with his family and believes he will be there for the next five days at least, or until he can return home. Mr. McKay has lived in Lytton his entire life. He says it’s the worst wildfire he’s ever seen.

(Ashleigh Stewart)

Heather Crozier, a volunteer at the arena, said about 250 people evacuated by firefighters had been helped at the center so far.

She said trucks full of donations had been arriving from the area since Wednesday. The center now had more resources than it could manage.

“We have people coming onto the streets who want to volunteer. They are from Merritt and others from other communities are also keen to come and volunteer. They work a few hours and leave. It’s amazing, I don’t even know how many volunteers we have now, ”says Crozier.

Another temporary evacuation center had been set up in the center of town, at the Merritt Civic Center. Camp stretchers were set up inside in rows for those with nowhere to turn.

Greg Lowis, chief information officer at the town of Merritt, said the center was set up at 8 p.m. Wednesday night, two hours after Lytton received an evacuation order, and at 11:30 p.m. the first evacuees were evacuated. had arrived. Since then, 139 people had come to register their evacuation. About 40 evacuees were still staying at Merritt on Saturday. One of their biggest hurdles in helping people was the fact that the city doesn’t have a lot of long-term accommodation, and hotels and motels were already full due to the long weekend.

“The sad fact of life at Merritt is that we have a 0 percent vacancy rate for long term rentals,” Mr. Lowis said.

A motorist watches from a setback on the Trans-Canada Highway as a wildfire burns on a mountain side in Lytton, British Columbia on Thursday, July 1, 2021.

((Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press via AP))

“It really is a historic problem with housing in British Columbia. Development simply does not keep up with demand and growth.

With evacuees currently only having housing assistance for seven days, Mr. Lowis and his team were figuring out what their long-term solution would be for the residents of Lytton who have no homes where return. They don’t have an answer yet.

He says that although the city was usually suffocating during the summer, recent temperatures have caught everyone off guard.

“It’s not uncommon for Merritt to see a day or a week above 40 degrees. But we’ve never had 42, 43, 43, 42 like this, and especially not so early in the year. So it was something we weren’t expecting so soon. But obviously we have forest fires quite regularly, so we have pretty good experience in managing evacuations. “

The center will remain operational for the time being, due to the persistent threat of evacuations by forest fires in neighboring towns – one of the most concerning being several centered around Lake Durand, which has forced the evacuation of 166 properties. Friday night.

(Ashleigh Stewart)

It was these fires that forced Cara Haywood-Farmer to evacuate twice in as many days. Mrs. Haywood-Farmer is in her third trimester of pregnancy and has two children aged two and five. Her husband had remained at their ranch in Deadman Valley when Ms Haywood-Farmer and her children fled to the nearby Tunkwa area, where her in-laws live, as fires closed on their farm.

“It was very stressful. We have a lot of animals there, a lot of cattle, ”she says.

“We found a bunch of them. But not all of them, and we won’t know until the fires are completely extinguished where they all are. The ranch below us has had confirmed livestock losses. “

On Friday, the family was evacuated from Tunkwa due to the advance of the fires. So she went to Merritt to stay with Mrs Haywood-Farmer’s parents.

She was one of ten people who registered at the civic center on Saturday afternoon.

Merritt City Councilor Mike Bhangu said the city had only been able to handle the influx of evacuees thanks to its “incredible staff”, many of whom were volunteers and worked from early in the morning until late at night.

And while the generosity of the general public had been appreciated, the city was now actively discouraging donations because it had received too many.

“We don’t have the physical space for all the donations to come in,” he says.

“It makes my heart shine, the attitude of British Columbians in times of need, they come together.”


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