British Columbia

B.C. wildfire evacuees say they are being asked to leave hotels

Those who have the means to travel farther than Fort St. John are being asked to go to Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, and Prince George.

Hotels say they are trying to help evacuees while honouring pre-existing bookings

A sign that says "Emergency Support" outside a building with people lined up.
The emergency reception centre at the North Peace Arena in Fort St. John, B.C. is serving hundreds of evacuees from wildfires in Fort Nelson, the Fort Nelson First Nation and the Doig River First Nation. (CBC News)

Evacuees of a wildfire burning in northeast B.C. say they are being asked to leave their hotel rooms to make way for existing reservations.

Nearly 4,700 people from Fort Nelson and the nearby Fort Nelson First Nation were ordered to leave their homes Friday as the Parker Lake wildfire moved toward the community, with Fort St. John — a 390-kilometre drive to the south — having the nearest emergency centre.

Mackenzie Spenrath was one of the first to arrive at the support centre.

"I was No. 17 in line," he said.

He and his partner were given a voucher to stay at a local hotel until May 21, he says, but staff asked if they could leave Tuesday morning in order to make way for another reservation.

"I was able to get them to extend our stay until the 17th," he said Tuesday. "But I know from Facebook and just hearing other people in the lobby, they've kicked other people out of this hotel today."

In an emailed response, the Coast Hotel in Fort St. John, where Spenrath is staying, confirmed they had a work crew arriving in the city that put them over capacity.

"As a responsible business, we had to keep our promises towards them," the statement reads. 

"We had to move out a few evacuees in order to make way for those reservations. But we were and we are still trying our best to accommodate all the evacuees who are facing a tough time in their lives."

A long line of people outside in a parking lot
Evacuees line up to re-register for accommodation and support at the Fort St. John emergency reception centre on Tuesday. (CBC News)

"We value your understanding in this matter and we are trying our best to help all the evacuees in this unfortunate situation."

Spenrath says he understands there may be workers or travellers who booked rooms in advance but he wondered if they are aware they are displacing people who have been forced from their homes.

"Because if I was in that situation, I would not be taking a hotel room from an evacuee," he said.

"Especially if you still have a safe house to return to, which we don't."

Hotels stretched thin

In its email, the Coast Fort St. John said it understands the "frustration" and "concern" expressed by guests asked to leave, a message echoed by other hotels in the city.

The Northern Grand Ramada, where evacuees say they have also been asked to leave, says it has tried to be upfront about the fact it may not be able to provide rooms indefinitely.

A playground with slides and cartoon animals is blanketed by smoke.
A playground in the community of Charlie Lake, 10 kilometres northeast of Fort St. John, is blanketed by smoke on Saturday, the day evacuees headed to the community to escape a wildfire near Fort Nelson. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

"We have been in touch and clear with [emergency support services] and in-house guests ... that our availability would be limited due to existing reservations, and we may not be able to extend all stays," the hotel's general manager said in an email.

"Many of our existing reservations include those for helicopter pilots, B.C. wildfire firefighters, and B.C. Hydro workers in the region to assist with the wildfire situation.

"We completely understand that this is a stressful situation and are sorry that we were not able to accommodate everyone. We take pride in being a safe haven for the Fort Nelson evacuees and pray that everyone stays safe."

Pomeroy Lodging said it has not had to ask anyone to leave at this point, and that it has been reaching out to other guests with reservations to see if they can change travel plans in order to accommodate evacuees, though some evacuees say they have been warned they may not be able to extend their stay beyond existing reservations.

The province's emergency management ministry, which is responsible for providing support for evacuees, said while some people may need to change hotels due to previous bookings, staff are working to ensure everyone has a place to stay.

In an email, the ministry said it has set up an additional 400-room accommodation for evacuees in Sunset Prairie, 60 kilometres by road from Fort St. John.

Fort St. John 'really, really full': councillor

Evacuees in need of support are being encouraged to register online at ess.gov.bc.ca or at emergency reception centres in Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Chetwynd and Prince George in order to receive vouchers for food and lodging.

The majority are choosing Fort St. John as the closest location to Fort Nelson, and that is driving the city's hotel and motel rooms to near capacity, a local leader said.

"We're getting right to the point where it's capacity, our hotels are getting really really full," Fort St. John Coun. Jim Lequiere said on CBC's Radio West on Monday. 

The city is encouraging people to register elsewhere, where there is more room available, if they have the means to do so.

Long lines continue to snake through the North Peace Arena in Fort St. John for both new evacuees and those who have to re-register in order to renew their accommodation and meal vouchers, which expire after 72 hours.

Emergency Support Services in Fort St. John have processed more than 1,400 people who have been evacuated from Fort Nelson because of wildfire

That includes those who first arrived on Friday, including Spenrath who says he currently holds ticket 1,398. 

In community Facebook groups, people in line regularly post updates on whose number is being called for those who cannot spend the day waiting.

The province says the renewed vouchers will last for seven days in order to decrease the need for people to return.

Lequiere said around 20 to 40 staff and 40 volunteers are working around the clock to process evacuees. 

"To have this many evacuees, basically in two days, it's just a credit to our staff and volunteers," he said.

He added that the community, located around 290 kilometres northeast of Prince George, has stepped up, with businesses providing donations and community members opening up their homes — and their backyards and farms for pets. 

A woman in a parking lot.
Tammy Bremner says the community of Fort St. John has been welcoming and supportive to the hundreds of wildfire evacuees, like her, who have been forced from their homes. (CBC News)

Fort Nelson resident Tammy Bremner was among hundreds lined up outside the Fort St. John evacuation centre to re-register on Tuesday. 

"It's definitely frustrating for a lot of people in line who have been kicked out of their hotels," said Bremner. "It's become a first come, first serve."

Through tears, Bremner said people in Fort St. John have been helpful and welcoming to evacuees. 

"We all really appreciate it, taking in the livestock, taking in people, offering your homes and just being there to support the community," said Bremner. 

"Fort St. John has always been No. 1 for that."


Help for evacuees

Evacuees seeking help, including for meal and shelter vouchers, should register online at ess.gov.bc.ca or at the following emergency reception centres:

  • Fort St. John: North Peace Arena (9805-96 Ave.) Evacuees without accommodation in Fort St. John are being asked to travel to another community, if they are able.
  • Sunset Prairie: The province has set up single dorm-style rooms (no pets or alcohol) with private bedrooms and support staff  at Sunset Prairie Industry Camp (4591 Braden Road). 
  • Dawson Creek: Sudeten Hall, Walter Wright Pioneer Village (1901 Alaska Hwy.)
  • Chetwynd: City Hall (5400 Hospital Rd.)
  • Prince George: Exhibition Grounds near the CN Centre (41 Keller St.)

Prince George has set up a permanent emergency reception centre at the latter location to serve as the base for the city's summer emergency response. 

Evacuees who need help seeking support can contact Service B.C. at 1-800-387-4258.

A mental health support line for evacuees is available at 310-6789 (no area code).

For more news updates, find the latest wildfire news and stories from CBC British Columbia.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a CBC British Columbia journalist born and based in Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George, B.C. He has covered the people and politics of northern British Columbia for more than a decade. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

With files from Radio West and Yvette Brend