Heather MacKay (L), 48, and daughter Meliah MacKay, 18, speak to AFP in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, on August 21, 2023, as Heather shows an aerial picture of her house.
Heather MacKay (L), 48, and daughter Meliah MacKay, 18, speak to AFP in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, on August 21, 2023, as Heather shows an aerial picture of her house. Image Credit: AFP

ELOWNA - When the MacKay family were told to evacuate due to forest fires in western Canada, they thought they would be home soon - until a camera in their kitchen started sending alerts.

"It lasted, like, five minutes. And then nothing," Heather MacKay says, showing video clips on her phone of smoke billowing through the kitchen before several small explosions go off.

Confirmation that the blaze destroyed her house in a quiet neighborhood in Canada's West Kelowna came the next day, thanks to a security camera her neighbors had on their deck before their home was also lost.

"It's sad to know that it's all gone," says her 18-year-old daughter Meliah. "I feel fine about things that are replaceable, but there are things that can't be replaced."

Meliah, Heather and her husband Shane spoke to AFP at a restaurant in neighboring Kelowna, where Heather works as a hairstylist.

They recounted the agonizing hours since last Thursday when massive forest fires that have consumed thousands of hectares in the region, charred their neighborhood - destroying at least 50 homes.

Hundreds of firefighters are battling against the infernos that have unleashed clouds of smoke choking much of British Columbia and beyond.

'The Barbie house!'

The MacKays, originally from Alberta, have moved many times, but to be closer to family, they decided a few years ago to settle in West Kelowna, a tourist paradise of more than 30,000 inhabitants with wineries, bike and walking trails, lakes and beaches.

"We came here to live permanently," says Heather, 48, emphasizing the irony.

They'd moved so often, it seemed a good idea to also downsize. "And that's done!" her husband interrupts.

"We laugh sometimes and then we think about things and we cry," Heather says.

A hot spot from the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire burns in Scotch Creek, British Columbia. Image Credit: AP

"We have moments when we remember and we get emotional," she adds, her voice breaking.

"The girls and I (share) texts and we'll all of a sudden be like, 'The Barbie house!' Or I'm like, 'My AirPods!'... For me, it's those little keepsakes like the baby boxes."

She'd gifted each of her four children boxes with mementos such as baby clothes and other keepsakes - all lost in the fire.

"I had a best friend when I was little pass away. And so since I was eight, I've had this stuffed animal she'd given to me, so, so..." she says, suddenly breaking down in tears.

"I had my wedding dress. And we were joking, 'What am I ever gonna do with that? We've moved it 30 times.' And so I'm like, 'Oh, I guess it's OK, we don't have to move that,'" she adds with a laugh.

"I laugh and I cry, and I laugh and I cry."

Shane wants to be pragmatic in the crisis. "What else can you do?" he says. "We have to go on."

'Nobody was hurt'

Heather acknowledges that she feels overwhelmed. The family has been split up: Heather and Shane moved in with his parents in neighboring Peachland. Meliah with her two cats and her sister with her dog are in other houses (the two older children did not live with them).

"I get nauseated when we're trying to decide where to live... I just don't know what to do next."

One of the biggest problems they face is keeping the family together because they can't find accommodation that allows pets. "This will affect our family dynamic," Heather says.

She was working when the evacuation alert sounded Thursday afternoon and authorities wouldn't let her back home, so she asked her eldest daughter to pack.

"Wrong," she says wryly. In her suitcase she found a "pink power suit", pajamas and pants. "Only necessary things," she quips.

Meliah grabbed some sportswear, while Shane took a suitcase he had packed for an upcoming holiday trip and his wife's grandfather's teacup - now their only family heirloom.

Heather says she hasn't brought herself to buy anything yet, while Shane went Monday to get her a new desk and chair to work on.

Meliah, who once had a huge wardrobe, bought a blouse over the weekend.

"Eventually she'll have enough clothes to make a messy room again," Heather says, smiling and stroking her daughter's hair.

"The most important thing (is that) nobody was hurt. We're all fine. We'll be able to rebuild eventually."