On emotional bus tours, residents return to West Kelowna, B.C., to view the ashes

Annick deGooyer knew that her family's home of more than 20 years had been destroyed by the McDougall Creek wildfire that consumed scores of properties in West Kelowna, B.C., about three weeks ago.

But she expected more to remain than the pile of "ashy dust" atop the foundations that she and her firefighter husband Rob Baker viewed last Friday while on a bus tour of the devastated neighbourhood of Trader's Cove, on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

"You would think a whole house, when it burns, it would take up more space," said deGooyer.

The Central Okanagan Emergency Operations Centre has been taking homeowners on the bus trips since last week, allowing residents to see the ruin of their homes firsthand.

The tours have been shocking for some, and a counsellor has joined the trips. But homeowners say they have also given communities and neighbours a chance to reconnect and discuss what comes next.

Pilot Stephen Fuhr, who is also the former MP for Kelowna-Lake Country, lost his lakeview home.

He said neighbours at the meeting point for the tour were in various stages of shock. Fuhr himself could not recall when he did the tour last week, the days since his home burned on Aug. 18 have been reduced to a blur.

"And we did talk about the future, you know, who's gonna rebuild? Who's not? Everyone is just kind of dealing with it in their own way," said Fuhr.

The operations centre said only residents whose properties have been destroyed or are uninhabitable are being invited on the tours.

"This process is to ensure those who have received devastating news have the privacy, time and space to be the first to see their properties," it said in a statement last week.

DeGooyer's husband is among 13 members of the Wilson's Landing Fire Department who lost their homes to the wildfire. She said neighbours from six or seven households joined the tour.

Participants were not allowed off the bus, and as it inched toward her property, deGooyer peered from her seat to see what was left. To witness the destruction firsthand was sad and overwhelming, she said.

But it was also "lovely" to see her neighbours in person for the first time in two weeks. They hugged when the tour ended.

And she knew that things looked much worse in the aftermath of the blaze. Baker, her husband, told her that the day after the fire, the neighbourhood was a mess of downed trees and power lines.

"They have worked so hard on the infrastructure and cleaning things up. We had two really big pine trees next to our house and they have already been cut down. They have done such an amazing job of cleaning everything up," said deGooyer.

DeGooyer said the fire was like an "ultimate reset" to give her a chance to stop and rethink what she could do differently with her home before moving forward.

Fuhr said he had previously received satellite photos from his insurance company showing the destruction of his home but seeing it in person was still tough.

"I had an idea of what I was going to find. I think that made it a little easier for me. So, I wasn't completely shocked, but it was still difficult," said Fuhr, adding that the home's destruction was "complete."

"It looks like someone took my house and put it into an incinerator and burned it completely to ashes," said Fuhr.

Fuhr was in Vancouver when he heard about the fires. After driving back to West Kelowna, he had 15 minutes to save what he could.

He didn't get much. It wasn't just a house, that Fuhr had "tried to make as homey" as he could, that was lost to the flames. Beloved mementoes of his civilian and military flying career also went up in smoke.

However, Fuhr said he decided to focus on rebuilding rather than lamenting what was lost.

Fuhr said he plans to put on his work boots, pick up a shovel and go back to the site to poke around in the ashes. He has no plans to leave West Kelowna.

"I love living there. I love it," he said. "So, you know, I will get the site cleaned up and start looking at rebuilding a new house. ... I have the puzzle pieces lying on the table there. I just need to start putting them together."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press