While two helicopters descended behind the hill that normally protects Princeton, a town of 2,828 in British Columbia, we walked down the closed-off street where refurbished antique cars lined up at angles for the annual Princeton Main Street Show & Sign sponsored by the local A & W.
We moved from car to car, pointing out the bug-eyed instruments on the dashboard, guessing if this car was like the car driven by my grandparents, wondering how long the restoration took.
The furry costumed A & W mascot walked through the crowd, one hand waving towards no one in particular, the other holding the arm of a young girl leading the orange creature. A four-person band under a tent in the town square played 1950’s songs, and a donation gave you a grilled hamburger on a paper plate.
It was hot in the middle of the street in the middle of the afternoon, and many people like us eventually walked on the sidewalks shaded by the brick, single-story buildings.
Rising from behind the hill, each helicopter reappeared with a box hanging by a cord attached to the belly of the helicopter; the blades spun into a blur, and the box scraped against the clouds until the helicopters traveled out of sight.
It only was after I learned, reading the flashing message on the LED screen in front of Princeton Municipal Hall, that evacuees should register at the Riverside Community Centre, did I realize that the clouds were smoke and that the two helicopters from behind the hill were transporting water to douse a wildfire that could reach, assuming current conditions continue, and the wind blows in the right direction, and the four mountains and four streams do not hold back the fire, our family’s house in four days. In other words, there’s a good chance that family will be reporting to the Riverside Community Centre by the end of this week.
We were visiting my husband’s cousin and her husband who live about twenty kilometers from Princeton on Old Hedley Highway. The Similkameen River is just over the hill behind their house, and coyotes yip under the pines outside their front door. It was a weekend of aging dogs, eggs from the hen house, everyone in the pool, and dinner stories about families (the mystery of my husband’s nickname solved).
This is the first time being close to the devastation of a wildfire, its odds measured by its percentage of containment (now 0% contained and officially labeled “out of control”.) This is the first time stopping whatever I am doing and tilting my head closer to the television to listen for any familiar streets now closed by the RCMP. This is the first time reading a map to estimate the kilometers separating family from fire. This is the first time preparing for the possibility to help family pack and leave before the road melts.
Back in Vancouver, we worry and wonder. We scroll the online newspapers in the morning, watch the television news programs in the evening, and, in between, click on the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen Valley map with Princeton outlined in green (evacuation alert) or red (evacuation order).
From our quiet living room, we watch the televised orange mass of fire erasing forests and blackening cars and burning horses. The photograph shows a woman in shorts walking alone on houses turned to debris. The news reporter supplies the required story about human resilience and connection and gratitude in the face of uncontrollable nature: “family, friends, and even strangers” helped a man corral his cattle and transport them to a safer space, “only losing four cows” last night. The radio announcer is an auctioneer reading the names of evacuated towns.
Yet this information cannot fully describe or convey what residents in the area of the wildfire are experiencing; instead, the information fulfills a neat storyline composed of manmade natural disasters, hold-outs from the evacuation, loss of homes, rebuilding or moving on, and the anniversary of the fire next year.
And that story is inadequate when the characters are people you know.
Moments like this show the hard distance between the necessity and the choice to pay attention, between reality and the story, between finding the first ember on your front porch and imagining what that must be like.
It only was later when I stood in our kitchen in Vancouver, quartering an apricot bought at Sarana’s fruit stand in Osoyoos, did I realize that I walked through the auto-show, as two helicopters carried water, without fear, because of my assumption that the wildfire would never reach me or people I know, that a defense high in the sky would prevent a tragedy close to home, and that the smoke we smelled came from the hamburger grills, not the 2,700 hectares of wildfire four mountains away.