“Like a science-fiction movie”: The story of one couple’s evacuation from Kelowna

Bonnie Sherwin and her husband, Don, fled their home of 30 years as fires approached. They don’t know when they’ll go back.
H.G. Watson
Two people stand on a beach looking at glowing orange smoke across a lake.
Smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire fills the air and nearly blocks out the sun as people take in the view of Okanagan Lake from Tugboat Beach, in Kelowna, B.C., Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

In the past few days, while Canadians watched Yellowknifers flee their homes, residents of another city were forced to make a similarly perilous evacuation due to ongoing wildfires. West Kelowna, B.C., with a population of 38,311, began evacuations on August 17 after a wildfire began 10 kilometres northwest of the city and quickly spread southward. Dramatic images of incinerated homes began flooding social media last Friday, an all-too-common sight during the worst Canadian wildfire season ever.

Read: “It’s like going off to war”: This man is helping evacuate fire-plagued Yellowknife

Bonnie and Don Sherwin, long-time residents of West Kelowna, evacuated their home near the city’s Rose Valley neighbourhood after first responders warned them they needed to leave—and fast. They headed to the Chilliwack home of their daughter, Lyn Sorensen, three hours away, where they could better manage home care for Don, a palliative patient. Here, Bonnie and Lyn recount the family’s harrowing journey to safety.

How long have you lived in Kelowna?

Bonnie Sherwin: We’ve lived in the same house near Rose Valley for 30 years. This was actually our second evacuation from the home.

You’re referring to the forest fire in August of 2003, which, at the time, was the largest interface fire B.C. had experienced. What was it like when you left 20 years ago—almost to the day?

Bonnie: I was working in an emergency centre for people who were being evacuated; I didn’t realize we were also being evacuated from our home. I happened to phone Don, my husband, who said, “You need to get here immediately because everyone’s gone.” We were the last ones out of the area. The power was off, so everything was already dark. I didn’t have time to grab anything. It was quite traumatic.

After that fire, did you ever consider moving?

Bonnie: No. We’ve been on alert for forest fires a few other times. We know that there’s always a risk of being evacuated, but we live in a very peaceful area. We have amazing neighbours and an amazing community. With my husband not being well, it’s a good place to be.

Did this evacuation feel different?

Bonnie: It was pretty well the same this time. I was dog-sitting, so I was out walking the dog and taking pictures of the nearby smoke. Emergency workers came and told me I needed to leave immediately. I didn’t even have time to gather the food I’d planned on taking out of the fridge and freezer—that’s how fast it was. That puts you into panic mode.

Lyn Sorensen: My dad is also in palliative home care, so it’s very difficult to get him out of the house and into the car. He has a hole in his heart, and he’s very weak, so we were worried about the stress.

Bonnie: It was so hot from the fires, we could hardly breathe. My main goal was to get the air conditioning on in the car and to get Don out. We’re fairly calm people, so we handled it well. Thank goodness.

What did you need to bring with you to make sure Don was taken care of?

Lyn: He’s in a hospital bed, so my mom had all of his medications packed.

Bonnie: We also had to return the dog I was looking after to the owner’s mother. The owners were in Alberta. We met her at a grocery store on the way out of town.

I can’t imagine the stress of being responsible for someone’s pet and having to evacuate your own family at the same time.

Bonnie: And so sad—for those people, too. They flew to Alberta, but the local airport in the Okanagan was closed, so they couldn’t get home. It was hard for me to say goodbye to the dog, too. All the way to Merritt, B.C., was terrible—it was like driving into something we’ve never seen before. The clouds were swirling red. Even the smoke was red. The hills were burning in every direction and the roads were empty. It was really eerie.

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Lyn: Like a science-fiction movie. My mom hadn’t driven on the highway in 20 years, so we had family go help her navigate the Coquihalla highway. It was once featured on the Netflix show Highway Thru Hell.

Bonnie: Our grandson and our son-in-law, Lyn’s husband, met us part way and took over driving. It was nice to have a break, to have somebody else to talk to, instead of thinking about what was going on at home. At that point, we didn’t know if our house was gone or not. We knew the fires were pretty close.

It’s surprising to me that the roads were empty. Were people evacuating in different ways? Were they empty because of the time that you left?

Bonnie: Most people stayed in local hotels, further from the fire. Because of Don’s medical needs, we couldn’t go to a hotel, and I wasn’t going to put him in the hospital. Lyn’s house is suitable for him; we’d already talked about what we’d do in this scenario. The best thing to do, medically, was to get him here. It felt good to be with family—and it was quiet.

Lyn: The day after they came, and as hotels filled up in the Okanagan, people started pouring into the Lower Mainland. The highways were just jammed with evacuees.

The house is still standing, thankfully. How and when did you find that out?

Lyn: Not for a couple of days. On the fire map, my parents’ house was right in the middle of the red fire zone. We thought it was gone, but a neighbour’s security camera was still active. He told me it showed Mom and Dad’s house very clearly. He also saw a line of firefighters standing in my parents’ yard, facing the fire and setting up defences. I saw a picture of it, too.

Today, we got another video from the neighbour—it was so incredible. A firefighter walked over from his truck, turned on the truck’s hose and watered my parents’ huge vegetable garden. He also took four or five big garbage cans to the curb, hauling them out there in the smoke. He probably walked through crazy heat to do that—an absolutely unexpected act of kindness. Then, he looked into the camera and said, “I watered your vegetable garden for 20 minutes. I hope you’re okay.” They saved that whole neighbourhood. It’s awe-inspiring, what they did.

MORE: “Sixty-three per cent of N.W.T’s population have been evacuated”: A Q&A with Yellowknife mayor Rebecca Alty

Bonnie: We have a huge amount to be thankful for. Psalms 91, from the Bible, is an amazing comfort for me: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

What does that Psalm say to you about this situation?

Bonnie: That God is taking care of me. One of my neighbours, an elderly woman, spent last night in a hotel. She’s there by herself with her dog—I worry about her. I just said, “Start making a list of all the things to be thankful for, because there is still a lot to be thankful for.” I met a man while I was shopping here in Chilliwack, and he was loading a big cart full of water and pillows to drive up to Kelowna. People coming together: it gives you hope.

Lyn: There’s been no information on when my parents can return home; all the updates we have are from what we see on the news. But in the midst of all of this uncertainty and fear, I’ve seen people in Kelowna, on every Facebook group, offering to help in any way they can.