These B.C. firefighters lost their homes to wildfires last year. Now, they’re gearing up for another season

In August 2023, the McDougall Creek wildfire was wreaking havoc in the Okanagan region of British Columbia.

Paul Zydowicz, fire chief of the Wilson’s Landing Fire Department, was out fighting the blaze in Traders Cove on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

That’s when he saw his own house engulfed in flames.

“It was numbing,” Zydowicz recounted to CBC News this April.

Zydowicz and his team put out the fire at his house, then proceeded to work for more than 20 hours protecting other people’s homes.

“We slept for four hours and went back again. We worked the fire for 28 days straight,” the fire chief said.

Firefighters are pictured with fire rescue vehicle under a black plume of smoke.
Wilson’s Landing firefighters are pictured battling the McDougall Creek fire in 2023. (Submitted by Annick deGooyer)

Zydowicz was one of 13 firefighters with the Wilson’s Landing Fire Department to lose their homes. The brigade of on-call firefighters, who serve communities between Traders Cove and Shelter Cove, only had 24 members at the time. 

“That’s a tremendous hit on an emotionally personal level and also to the fire department,” Zydowicz said. “When you have our weekly practices and you see the faces and you know what they’ve lost, that hurts.”

The McDougall Creek wildfire was the largest wildfire in the history of West Kelowna, according to Kelowna-area officials, destroying over 180 homes and forcing more than 10,000 residents to evacuate.

Eight months later, none of the firefighters’ houses have been rebuilt. Some firefighters are still negotiating their insurance claim settlements, many are waiting for building permits to be issued, while others have only recently demolished or cleaned up the debris from their homes.

A large group of 15 firefighters stand side by side on the road in red fire fighting outfits.
Thirteen of the 24 members of the Wilson’s Landing Fire Department lost their homes to wildfire last summer. (Submitted by Wilson’s Landing Volunteer Fire Department)

But all the firefighters have chosen to keep living and working in their community, as they stare down another potentially destructive wildfire season.

“We’re ready, but we can also see what kind of damage can happen and how fast things can move,” said Rob Baker, a captain with the Wilson’s Landing Fire Department. 

The list

On a Thursday morning, Baker’s wife Annick deGooyer headed to a friend’s house in Kelowna after she was told of a possible evacuation order. She took their dog Watson, some clothes, and a box with passports and other important documents.

DeGooyer has had to evacuate her home in Traders Cove several times due to wildfires over the two decades that she’s lived there. She always believed she’d return. 

That night, she had barely slept when a notification popped up on her phone around 5 a.m. PT.

“Rob texted and said that the house was gone,” deGooyer said in an interview with CBC News.

A house sits on a hill
Annick deGooyer and Rob Baker lived in this Traders Cove home for more than 20 years. (Submitted by Annick deGooyer)
What’s left of deGooyer and Baker’s home in Traders Cove after it was destroyed by the McDougall Creek wildfire in August 2023. (Submitted by Annick deGooyer)

“It was 5 in the morning. And I looked around the room and I saw the two bags I had and our box. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is what we own,'” deGooyer said.

Baker and deGooyer are now living in a rented townhouse in Kelowna.

One of their many tasks since losing their house is writing a list for their insurance company of everything they owned in their home and how much it cost.

“The first couple months, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t listen to a podcast,” deGooyer said. “Not because I was upset, [but] your brain is so busy processing that you just don’t have the mental energy for any of the things that you normally would do in your downtime.” 

Two people walk among ashes and rubble
DeGooyer and Baker walk through their burnt property. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Zydowicz and his wife Kathleen Zydowicz are in a similar situation.

“You wake up in the middle of night, you’ll think ‘Paul, did you put the spatula on the list? We forgot about the spatula,'” she said. “You are always thinking about the list and it’s stressful.”

‘Above and beyond’

When the fires hit, Paul Zydowicz’s cousin-in-law started a GoFundMe to raise money for the firefighters who lost their homes. More than $175,000 has been raised, distributed equally between the firefighters.

Local organizations and community members also provided support, collecting clothing for the families and delivering multiple meals every day to the firefighters as they worked long hours.

A Kelowna a firefighter camp set up at the UBC Okanagan campus by the Salvation Army Emergency services. Over 1000 meals per day are served here as firefighters come and go from their shifts. At the end of the day trucks from all over the province are parked for the night.
The Salvation Army served hundreds of meals to Wilson’s Landing firefighters and members of other fire departments. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

“Often in smaller, more remote communities, there’s an interconnectedness that isn’t always there in the city,” said Jennifer Henson, an officer at the Westbank Salvation Army who supported the firefighters along with her husband.

The couple helped get a commercial-grade coffee machine for the Wilson’s Landing fire hall, attended their Christmas party and still keep in touch with the fire department. 

Zydowicz and Baker say they are extremely grateful for their community. 

As he tears up, Zydowicz says one family whose home was saved by Wilson’s Landing firefighters has dropped off baked goods at the fire hall every week since the fires.

Two people smile in a selfie
Paul Zydowicz, pictured here with his wife Kathleen, says three more people have joined the Wilson’s Landing brigade since last year’s fires. (Submitted by Kathleen Zydowicz)

“There’s always a note, something that shows their appreciation and that’s just above and beyond,” Zydowicz said.

Baker says the community’s support is helping firefighters move beyond surviving to thriving again.

“It made the difference — between still fuming and still living in this shell-shocked world, and just feeling like we’re supported,” he said.

‘We’re nervous’

Some B.C. residents who lost their homes in the 2023 wildfires can try to focus on rebuilding this summer. But even amid the overwhelming community support, Zydowicz and Baker have more pressing things to attend to in the next few months.

Federal officials are warning Canada could face another destructive wildfire season because of an unusually warm winter and widespread drought conditions.

“We’re nervous,” Baker said. “It’s another dry start to the year.”

Zydowicz says provincial and regional fire officials have shared forecasting with him that shows it’s drier and hotter than it was last year at this time.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months. Maybe it’ll start raining and the reservoirs will build up and the moisture will get back into the ground, but we can’t forecast that. We just have to prepare for potentially another significant fire season,” Zydowicz said.

But there is a grim upside to last year’s devastating fires, he says.

Homes near a wildfire as it burns in West Kelowna, B.C., early in the morning
Homes are pictured near the McDougall Creek wildfire as it burns in West Kelowna on August 18, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“There’s less fuel than there was before. So I’m actually breathing a little sigh of relief because there’s less to burn,” he said.

He’s worried about other areas that have yet to burn — but says his team is ready to jump into action.

The Wilson’s Landing Fire Department has added three new members. And most firefighters who lost their homes have rented houses close to the fire hall so they can respond quickly, Zydowicz said.

The firefighters’ efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“The Wilson’s Landing firefighters are people who consistently demonstrate their commitment to the community,” said Henson. 

“We live in a world that desperately needs people to not only say they care, but who follow up with actions, and we can count on the Wilson’s Landing firefighters to be such people.”

It’ll be two to three years before Zydowicz, Baker and their families are in their rebuilt homes, they estimate.

Building plans have to be drawn up, permits have to be issued, new engineering has to be done and insurance money has to come in. 

All of those hurdles are worth it for Zydowicz to live in his community again.

“I have no interest in living anywhere else,” he said. It’s a great place to live.”


Posted in CBC