At first, Mike and Gerry Fortier couldn't figure out why other drivers on Highway 16 to Prince George were honking at them as they passed by their truck and trailer.
Driving with a load of bottled water, diapers, toys, towels, toiletry items and clothes for Cariboo wildfire evacuees, as well as coveralls and breathing apparatus for first-responders fighting the fires - all collected from the people of Fort McMurray - their first reaction was," should I be giving out a one-finger salute."
Then they remembered what the people who provided the donations had written on their 23-foot trailer in grease paint. Words like: "B.C. bound, Fort Mac gives back." and "Stay strong B.C., we've got your back."
"It's a pay-it-forward thing, we know what it's like and what's going on here," said Mike Fortier. "For two weeks now there have been steady truckloads of donations that came to B.C. through Williams Lake, Kamloops and here.
"It's been incredible, and if they need me to do it again, I'll do it."
The food and equipment drive was organized by Stephanie Klaamus and Marty Frost of Fort McMurray who set up the Facebook page, YMM Helps British Columbia. They put donor boxes at grocery stores and took in donations from local businesses in Fort McMurray, a city devastated by wildfires which wiped out entire neighbourhoods a year ago. Last week, Klaamus and her friend drove through the night to deliver the first load to Kamloops.
When the call went out for trucks and drivers to deliver the goods, Mike Fortier, 52, rounded up his 57-year-old brother Gerry to share the driving duties to drive Mike's Chevy pickup on the 1,200-kilometre, 14 hour trip.
"I'd just started 18 days off, and he knew that and he threw this at me and I had to jump on it, it's the right thing to do," said Gerry. "It was a feel-good thing. All we got on the Yellowhead all the way to Prince George was horns wailing and thumbs up. We've been there, and we know what it's all about."
They rolled into the emergency social services centre at the College Of New Caledonia Saturday night. Seeing hundreds of people camped out in tents and RVs in the college parking lot brought a flood of memories of the May 2016 wildfire disaster, which forever changed their city and its 80,000 residents.
"When we got to the college, just seeing everyone's faces, it was a flashback from last year," said Gerry.
Neither brother lost their homes in the fires last year but Mike's was damaged severely when a natural gas leak went undetected after the service was turned back on after the fires and exploded, leaving the foundation of his house cracked in 13 places. He and his wife are still not back in their home. Gerry's house suffered severe smoke damage but was otherwise left intact.
Their trailer was half-full of first-responder equipment, including 100 pairs of fire-resistant coveralls, which was sent to firefighters at McLeese Lake, north of Williams Lake. The driver of that load, Rod Doerksen, helped out during the Fort McMurray fires last year, pumping fuel.
"He's been making runs down there steady, hauling cattle and hay, all on his own dime," said Mike. "He knows all the back roads and he was going to try get that stuff to McLeese Lake. Those poor firefighters, they've got nothing there.
"Somebody built a Canada flag out of old barn wood and they put it down at the donation centre and everybody who donated that day signed that flag. They put it in a truck and brought it to the McLeese Lake fire hall. The fire chief took Rod in to look at it and (the chief) said he couldn't go in there with him because if he did he'd be bawling again. It tore at his heart to see this thing."
One of the boxes the Fortiers brought to Prince George was from the Fort McKay First Nation, 200 km north of Fort McMurray, from kids there who wanted to donate their toys.
"They've lived this in Fort McMurray and it's heartwarming to think that there's people out there thinking about helping us deliver service and some needed items to evacuees," said Prince George mayor Lyn Hall.
Last week, the initial response from the city of Prince George was to dissuade donations of goods and instead people were encouraged to donate cash to the Canadian Red Cross fire appeal fund. But since them the city has set up a warehouse on River Road, where donations are being stored and distributed. City staff are working with the Red Cross and Salvation Army to respond to needs requests from the three evacuation centres and the call is going out for donors to provide essential items for the thousands of displaced Cariboo residents now in Prince George.
"We knew we would eventually have to receive donations but originally when we got this up and running we didn't have the capacity or the resources to look after a warehouse operation and now we're into that," said Hall. "That's what we're after, the essential stuff."
The fires have so far forced about 37,000 B.C. residents out of their homes, second in provincial history only to the 2003 wildfires in the Okanagan, which left 50,000 temporarily homeless. When Williams Lake was evacuated Saturday night, Hall said the city was prepared for as many as 700 more evacuees, but instead they were directed to go to Kamloops. He expects more will eventually come to Prince George to join their family members.
Williams Lake mayor Walt Cobb said Prince George could handle as many as 20,000 displaced people and Hall said if the number grew that large he's confident the city would have that capacity.
"We've said all along that we could handle thousands and if we had to handle 20,000 then I guess we'd have to step up and make sure that happened," said Hall. "We have facilities, we have cots and blankets and pillows and we know we can open up a number more and add hundreds if not thousands of beds in this community, and we also know people will respond by giving up a room in their homes.
"We're close to 8,000 (evacuated) people here in town and if we had to put another 8,000 in, we would just buckle down and do it."
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