The Quesnel couple behind a new monument honouring 2017 wildfire volunteers can relate to those who put in thousands of hours to house evacuees in Kamloops.
During the beginning of the fires that year, lightning struck in Quesnel and Lee-Anne Chisholm and Aaron Harder received a worried phone call from Chisholm’s parents — a fire had started in the distance.
“We took that half-hour drive and when we had arrived, the forest fire had surrounded their house,” Chisholm told KTW.
“We basically had a few minutes to convince them to evacuate. That’s a very tough situation to realize that you have to leave. And we evacuated so quickly that we realized we have to help our friends and neighbours.”
Help they did. As bombers and firefighters arrived on scene, Chisholm and Harder told friends and neighbours about what was happening and helped them evacuate.
And with nowhere else to go, the couple’s front yard became a pseudo-refugee camp, housing RVs, evacuees and what was thought to be the last of their family’s worldly possessions. While most of the family’s property was destroyed, the couple said it is a “miracle” that their family’s home remained standing.
“It was a trying month or so, but it also really brought us closer together,” Harder said. “It’s so neat to see how people, neighbours that necessarily wouldn’t even talk to each other, all band together to help each other.”
“Immediately,” Chisholm added. “There was no question about it — how can we help?”
The Quesnel couple was in Kamloops on Friday to unveil the monument they created to honour volunteers who lent a hand, much like they did, during the 2017 wildfires.
The Lend a Hand monument was commissioned by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. The artists’ personal connection to the fires poured into their work, a steel and concrete structure located at what Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian called “ground zero” — right behind Sandman Centre.
Christian was among several politicians from every level of government — city, regional district, provincial and federal governments — at Sandman Centre on Friday, April 12, to thank volunteers for banding together.
More than 11,000 evacuees were housed in Kamloops, including in the Blazers’ home rink, and volunteers gave about 100,000 hours of service.
Politicians agreed the efforts are indicative of a volunteer spirit in the River City, which can be traced to 1993, when the city hosted the Canada Games.
That volunteer spirit was again evident during the wildfires of 2003 and 2017.
“It is truly an honour to be the mayor of a city that cares,” Christian said.
Emergency support services volunteer Gord Davis ran the receptionist centre at Sandman Centre in 2017 and noted the smiles on people’s faces on Friday, compared to the looks on the faces of evacuees nearly two years ago, when people from throughout the region came to Kamloops to sleep in the arena.
The retired school principal said the centre was active for 71 days, from early July to mid-September. He volunteered 10 hours per day for 55 days, giving upwards of 500 hours that summer. Volunteers were responsible for everything from registering evacuees and setting up accommodations to lending an ear.
He recalled challenges, including training those who walked in off the street to help and burnout among those who refused breaks.
“To recognize the volunteers, I think is a really good idea,” Davis said. “Also to encourage people to continue to volunteer. That’s what makes things run. If you took the volunteers out of the equation, a lot of things would collapse.
“Whether it’s coaching teams, whatever it happens to be.”
Some people questioned whether the TNRD should spend $100,000 to erect the monument. There was apparently also much debate by board members about the best way to honour volunteers.
TNRD board chair Ken Gillis advocated for something permanent.
“I’m proud that I argued in favour of it,” Gillis said. “And there will be a cost, no doubt. And we’ll hear about it. But I think it’s well worth it. We needed something that’s timeless, something that will be here and outlast us. Volunteers played an integral role in supporting those impacted by wildfires and we are so very appreciative.”
The artwork was unveiled and Harder explained steel and concrete were chosen to “withstand the test of time, much like our communities.” Surrounding the base of the monument is an imprint of forests, demonstrating the imprint the fires had on people’s memories. Also included is a glass map of the Thompson rivers and centre marker for Kamloops, as an essential place of refuge, and concrete hands that Harder said represent the volunteers “breaking away from their daily lives to help everybody in need and lifting everybody up in the community.”
“We hope this becomes a space to reflect and remember that we’re all stronger together,” Chisholm said.