Monica Lamb-Yorski saw flames in her rear view.
The Williams Lake Tribune reporter was in her car Friday afternoon en route to take pictures of a lightning-caused wildfire near Spokin Lake when she had to slow down for a construction zone.
“I’m driving east and I can see the plume in the distance, but then in the rear view I realize there’s this other huge fire,” she told the Star, after evacuating with her family to Nelson on Saturday.
“I told myself, ‘I know I’m tired, but how come I’m looking at the fire and I can see another one behind me?’”
Undeterred, Lamb-Yorski drove on and continued to document the scene. She took photos and video, staying in intermittent contact with her news team, and then headed back to her office.
“I come back into town and I see a third huge fire over the Sugar Cane Reserve. That’s when I saw (a friend) and he said to me, ‘Monica, get in your vehicle and don’t stop.’”
It was around that time she realized things were getting serious — her home was put on evacuation alert shortly later.
“The fire was starting to race down the mountain, so I pull into the Tribune parking lot and I can see all these fires coming from different directions. I found out lightning had struck down in multiple places and everywhere it did there were huge fires starting up.”
She said it was “as if someone poured gasoline and lit a match” and the proximity to her family home was starting to get uncomfortable.
“I have a 40-year-old log home with a cedar shake roof completely surrounded by forest. The fires are on the opposite side of the lake from us and coming around, and at first I thought they put us on alert because we’re on a dead-end road and might not have a way to get out.”
There was one false alarm before they settled in to sleep overnight. But over and over again Lamb-Yorski crept up to the windows to watch the fire through the trees. While she stood at the window, she prayed.
“I said, ‘God save our house, but if not can you give us the grace to handle it.’”
And then the call came.
“My husband phoned me and said, ‘You need to pack, get some essentials.’ I was wandering around the house thinking, ‘What’s important? The kids? The pets? Me?’ I don’t know.”
She ultimately decided, “I’m such a snob I knew I needed good coffee, so I brought a grinder and I figure if I’m sleeping on the floor in some gym somewhere at least I can have a good cup of coffee.”
“This is the first time that I’ve ever been this close to a wildfire, and what I’ve learned is that it can change in moments. You could be trying to report something accurately and then in an hour it’s already different.”
When it gets to be too much, she has idiosyncratic ways of coping.
“One morning I was just feeling overwhelmed about doing a good job, about getting good information to the people, and I just had a good cry for about 15 seconds. I let myself do that, and then I felt like, ‘OK, good, I can do this.’”
Before the evacuation she’d been working closely with her editor Angie Mindus, filing as regularly as she could, but in Williams Lake the smoke was oppressive.
“We were hardly sleeping because our chests were hurting from the smoke. We had to get up every hour or two to get a cup of water. I felt so bad because the kids were just waiting, day after day.”
Ultimately she packed her car up with her niece, two sons and three dogs — she couldn’t evacuate north, as planned, and had to head south — so she called her daughter Gisele in Nelson. Now she’s happy to be safe, living across the street from Lions Park with Gisele.
“Gisele was born here, and we lived here until 1995. When the evacuation order came down, and suddenly we were going south according to the order, and in an instant I told my niece in the front seat to (call ahead) and also phone the two grandmas, one in Winnipeg and one in Nelson, and tell them we’re good.”
The family was relieved to get together.
“I didn’t have a sense of how worried they were, but my daughter Gisele said, ‘This makes me feel so much better, I’m glad you’re coming.’ And now, here I am.”