Summerfest provides diversion for evacuees

The wildfires that forced Emma and Mason Cedarholm out of their home in Williams Lake was about the furthest thing from their minds Sunday as they headed for the butterfly house at Summerfest.

Behind that Sixth Avenue Summerfest attraction was the Cottonwood Railway miniature train and three-year-old Emma and her five-year-old brother Mason were just about to join the line to wait for their ride. Then there was facepainting, cotton candy, balloon animals, a petting zoo and a big pile of sand dumped on George Street for them to play in.

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If only life was so simple for their parents, Andrea and Shawn. They left Williams Lake a week ago Sunday when smoke from the wildfires proved too much to take and joined the exodus to Prince George. They've been living out of a hotel room ever since.

"The kids think it's a big vacation so 10 years from now they'll see it as a vacation and we'll see it as the worst July of our lives," said Andrea Cedarholm.

"It's hard on all of us but with all these cool things going on in Prince George it does make it easier."

The Cedarholm family also took part in the Prince George Hospice Society's Forget the Fire gathering Saturday afternoon at Lheidli T'enneh Memorial Park and were blown away by the event.

"That was wonderful," said Andrea.

"It was hard not to cry just because of how cool it was, how big it was and how many people were involved and I really hope people will take some of this back to Williams Lake. The kids just had a great time and I don't even think we saw a quarter of it. Swimming (at the Aquatic Centre) and The Exploration Place, that has made a huge difference for us. It's been stressful for us but they're still enjoying themselves."

Shawn Cedarholm says his friends have been sent to different cities to wait out the fire danger and he considers himself fortunate he and his family ended up in Prince George, where the city has proved exceptionally accommodating. His wife has lung issues and they are relieved the city hasn't been plagued with smoke from the fires.

"I just wanted to thank Prince George, you guys have been awesome in every aspect helping us evacuees feel at home and settled in here," said Shawn. "I know we've got the best on the ground down there fighting it for us and hopefully they can get a break and we can all return home."

Showers came and went during the first few hours of Summerfest and crowds were noticeably more sparse as compared with previous years, but what has been an annual event since 2011 proved just as popular with people who did make the trek downtown. They came for the live music on the TD stage or to take in the Dr. Van Houligan's magician/comedian act under the big tent or to sample the restaurant food in the Taste Pavillion, and they weren't disappointed.

John and Brenda Colebrook try to never miss Summerfest and, like many city residents, they were left wishing it wasn't just a one-day affair. Brenda says the city needs more events like that to draw people downtown and the timing was perfect Sunday with the city now hosting nearly 8,000 wildfire evacuees.

"This might be an outlet for the people coming here from Williams Lake to give them a chance to break their train of thought about what's going on - this is such a terrible time for them," said John.

Said Brenda: "It's a sense of community and they're lacking that right now and if we can include them in ours, why not."

Brenda has been volunteering her services three or four hours per day at the Prince George Humane Society's temporary shelter looking after the pets of displaced Interior residents set up at Peden Hill elementary school. She also made up a batch of rhubarb tarts and chocolate goodies for people camped out at the evacuation centre at the College of New Caledonia.

"I've been going in the evenings and I go around and visit and they say to me, 'Prince George's people are so friendly that we think we're going to move here,'" said Brenda. "What a compliment to our city. Several people have said that to me."

Andrea Berry brought her two-year-old great Dane, Oakley, for his first Summerfest experience and probably could have made a few bucks on the side if she'd had a saddle for her dog to give some of the smaller kids a ride.

"I usually come with my family to Summerfest every year," said Berry. "I like trying little things from the restaurants and if you like what you had you go to the restaurant. The music's good and I've been checking out the (exhibitors') tents. I've been chatting with some people who had to leave their homes and it's very unfortunate, but I'm glad we're doing a lot and this is a good event to have for them."

Dustin Hedstrom, head chef of The Canadian Brewhouse, was selling trayloads of bacon-wrapped jalapenos to the Summerfest crowd. The newly-opened restaurant had its grand opening Saturday and he's noticed some of the people forced out of their homes by the fires have been coming by.

"We had a table of about 15 of them from 100 Mile (House) who came in three days ago, and when they came in they were really down, and we bought them some drinks and bought them some dessert and by the end they were laughing and having a good time," said Hedstrom.

"It was nice to see them enjoying themselves because they deserve it."

Crews from Prince George Fire Rescue have been kept busy all week doing their jobs as firefighters and helping city staff deal with the crush of so many temporary residents seeking shelter from the firestorms. Firefighters Brian Johnston and Dallas Smith took time away from their duties at the nearby No. 1 fire hall to wander through the crowds at Summerfest.

"There's a lot more people and we're pretty lucky as a city to be able to cater to these people, especially with an event like this to show them what Prince George is all about," said Johnston.

Dealing with the effects of the wildfire disaster is unprecedented in the city's 101-year history and Smith says all first responder organizations are learning how to deal with it.

"Events like (the wildfires) don't happen all the time and when they do they're major and it's a lot of work," said Smith.

"It's a bit of an eye-opener and when all of a sudden people start streaming in it's a good thing we have the facilities to assist these people the way we are, between the university and the college and maybe more down the road. You get to see on a full scale how all this comes together and what's needed. You need a lot of manpower and organization."

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