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'It happened so fast': Evacuees describe fleeing Fort Nelson, B.C., wildfire

The Aurora Borealis shines overhead of a B.C. Conservation Officer Service vehicle near the junction of highways 97 and 77, as a wildfire burns in the background near Fort Nelson, B.C., in a Saturday, May 11, 2024, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship The Aurora Borealis shines overhead of a B.C. Conservation Officer Service vehicle near the junction of highways 97 and 77, as a wildfire burns in the background near Fort Nelson, B.C., in a Saturday, May 11, 2024, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship
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The Parker Lake wildfire continues to burn near Fort Nelson, B.C., where some 3,000 residents have been ordered to evacuate.

Despite the warning, some are choosing to stay.

Some like Duane Loe. He was born and raised in Fort Nelson, and he’s not letting it burn.

He and a group of certified firefighters are volunteering to stay behind and keep people’s homes safe.

“We plan on doing what we can, we're gonna survive,” Loe told CTV News as he stood by the road barricade police had set up.

He said he and a handful of experienced volunteers are staying behind, and have tanks and other equipment to fight the fire should it come to that.

Many in the town have fled to Fort St. John, Prince George and other communities. Loe, who’s lived in Fort Nelson all his life, said he’s never seen the town this empty.

“It's a really eerie feeling to drive through a town and see the cars parked, see the houses, see everything and there's not a soul around,” he said.

Helping abandoned pets

Other Fort Nelsoners have fled. Lori Schoroth left with her mother and two dogs in the middle of the night Friday for Fort St. John, along with many of their neighbours.

“We drove four and a half hours bumper-to-bumper with our entire community throughout the night. It was heartbreaking,” she said.

“Some people had to drive 10 hours in the middle of the night to Prince George.”

It’s stressful for families, but evacuees said they’re also worried about their furry friends.

Shannon Hughes, who helps run North Paw Animal Rescue, evacuated Friday with her husband, two kids and four dogs. But she said many people had to leave their pets behind.

Some pets got loose in the chaos and their owners couldn’t stay to find them. Others had no choice but to leave.

“There's a lot of members of our community that don't drive or have access to a vehicle … couldn't take their animals with them, and in those situations, the best thing you can do is to turn the animal loose,” she said.

North Paw Animal Rescue had to worry about finding people to take their own rescue animals, and helped locals get in touch with people still in town to feed their pets or get them to safety.

Luckily, they were able to find volunteers to take on their animals, and have helped community members get help for their pets or find people driving out of Fort Nelson to bring abandoned pets with them. But the small organization said they don’t have the capacity to keep helping people at this point.

'People are really stepping up'

Many of the evacuees have ended up in Fort St. John. Hughes is currently in Dawson Creek, but spent the first night of her evacuation in the town.

She said people have been eager to help.

“Our first night when we got there, there was I think one or two people ... cooking hotdogs and hamburgers for literally thousands of people that just showed up all at once,” she said.

Generosity has been infectious in Fort St. John.

Jacqueline Baker lives there and is originally from Fort Nelson. Her family still lives there and had to evacuate. It wasn’t quite the Mother’s Day she expected.

“It's just devastating. It happened so fast,” she said.

But she said people in town have been stepping up to help however they can. Many, including herself, are helping watch people’s pets.

A local hair salon has been offering shampoos and blowouts for evacuees, local gyms are letting people in for free workouts, and some stores are giving evacuees discounts.

“People are really stepping up and coming together,” she said.

Other nearby communities, like the Prophet River First Nation, opened up their gym for evacuees.

Even with all the help, evacuees are still in limbo. Rachel Phillips moved to Fort Nelson from the United Kingdom last June. She’d heard of Canada’s wildfires, but when she got the alert about the fire near Fort Nelson, she admitted she didn’t take it seriously.

“I didn't think we needed to get urgently prepared, and then it changed very quickly from that to ‘Oh no, we're evacuating’,” she said.

“I had literally 20 minutes to pack up, so a lot of things have been left behind.”

She’s safe in Fort St. John now, but she said she’s worried about the people who stayed behind, including her neighbour who uses a wheelchair.

All she can do is sit and wait.

“It’s very distressing, because obviously you don't know what's going to happen, so just being like a sitting duck.”

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