Debera Willis was returning to her home in Ashcroft on a beautiful summer day in July 2017 when she was stopped by a police barricade. The whole town was being evacuated because of the wildfires, an RCMP officer told her, and she was not permitted to return home.
$20,000donated by BCNU for wildfire recovery efforts
“I said, ‘I’m a nurse, I have a dog in my house, I’ll come right back out.’ And the officer told me no, I couldn’t go home,” Willis recalls. “That’s when I realized I only had the clothes on my back.”
Willis, who currently works in acute care at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, was working at Ashcroft’s long-term care facility Jackson House at the time of the fires. Pulling over to the side of the road she called her manager, who told her patients were being relocated to two long-term care homes (Gillis House and The Florentine) in the nearby town of Merritt.
Willis immediately turned the car around and headed towards her patients, beginning a 12-hour night shift in Merritt just hours after learning of the fires. She and her colleagues had no idea if their houses — or the town of Ashcroft — would still be standing when they returned home.
“We were constantly wondering if there was going to be anything to go home to,” she said. “But I knew I had to be there helping, because people needed me. We wanted to create a semblance of home for our patients — at the end of the day, that’s what nurses do.”
“We were constantly wondering if there was going to be anything to go home to. But I knew I had to be there helping, because people needed me. We wanted to create a semblance of home for our patients — at the end of the day, that’s what nurses do.”
Willis and her colleagues moved into the Ramada Inn and dove into their work. Many of their patients had families who were trapped behind the fire line and unable to visit, so the nurses did their best to reassure patients that everyone was safe.
“There’s a caring trait that brings people into nursing, and that helped us move forward during the fires because there were so many people less fortunate than us,” she says. “It was about creating a safe haven, and trying to remain positive so patients could see the little bits of goodness every day.”
The support of her colleagues and the BCNU was extremely important during the summer of fires, Willis says, noting she was the professional responsibility advocate on her region’s executive at the time. When some of the nurses became exhausted and sick, their co-workers nursed them back to health. When someone was having a particularly tough day, the other nurses would do their best to support them, she reports.
“BCNU –members — and all the nurses out there — stood strong together,” she says. “We shared food, we shared laughs, we shared tears. I learned a lot about strength and character, and I think we stood together because we all genuinely care.”
After two weeks the wildfire evacuation was lifted, and Ashcroft residents were permitted to return home. Many houses — and much of the pristine nature the town is known for — was destroyed, but soon the regeneration began.
“Watching the rebirth that happened after all the destruction was unbelievable: the grass and the trees started coming back, the birds flew home to re-build their nests,” Willis recalls. “Our residents also flourished once they got back and settled in — that was huge. Everybody came together during the chaos of the wildfires, and it was amazing to see that happen.”