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A church retreat center is offering hope to victims of natural disasters in Canada


The Canadian province of British Columbia experienced a series of natural disasters this year. Over the summer, a heat dome smashed temperature records and is blamed for hundreds of deaths. Last month, the so-called atmospheric river dropped a month's worth of rain in just two days. Flooding and landslides followed. People displaced by those two events are now living together at a place called Camp Hope. Reporter Emma Jacobs has been visiting.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: A little before dinnertime, people trickle in to sit in front of a fireplace in the main lodge of Camp Hope, a church retreat center off a stretch of rural highway running along forested mountains. They talk about the suddenness with which a wildfire sped into their town of Lytton around 60 miles north of here at the end of June.

ALFONSE ADAMS: It was just a big cloud of, like, of brown smoke that was creeping up the mountainside there.

JACOBS: Alfonse Adams (ph), like most Lyttonites, belongs to the Indigenous Lytton First Nation. They have lived here for generations upon generations.

ADAMS: And after that, I guess that wind picked up there and - plus the heat - and that start coming toward the village or - I don't call it a town. It's a village. Now it's not.

JACOBS: Just days before the fire, during the heat dome that settled over the Pacific Northwest, Lytton had set an all-time temperature record for Canada of 121 degrees. Within minutes, the fire burnt most structures to the ground. Dave and Doreen Crozier retired to Lytton 15 years ago. The fire reached them just after Doreen ran back inside to try to grab wallets and passports.

DAVE CROZIER: Luckily, I see her rushing out with a cat and a basket, and it was too late to get her other possessions. The fire was - engulfed the house by then.

JACOBS: The Croziers stayed with each of their children for a few weeks before they learned Camp Hope, which is run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, had cancelled its summer reservations to house residents of Lytton. They and their cat are still here months later.

DOREEN CROZIER: Oh, yeah, she's here with me - the only thing I got out of the house. I'm keeping her (laughter).

DAVE CROZIER: Other than that, this has been a long stretch of being homeless.

DOREEN CROZIER: Thank God we're here.

DAVE CROZIER: This has been our great rescue in the dark.

JACOBS: These displaced people recently found themselves helping other victims of a natural disaster. Last month, torrential downpours caused landslides on the highway that runs by the camp, which trapped dozens of vehicles late on a Sunday night. The Croziers and a member of the camp's staff went down in the morning to knock on car windows and invite the passengers in to eat and get warm.

DAVE CROZIER: You could see the stress in the people's face that had slept with their children out there on the street, on that Highway 7 all night. That was pretty scary to see them in that condition.

JACOBS: One of them, Samantha Brownlee, hadn't realized how many people had been stranded until she walked into the lodge. On her way home from seeing her parents, she had just spent a cold night in the car with her kids, aged 7 and nearly 2.

SAMANTHA BROWNLEE: This wonderful human named Karen (ph) just spots me in the middle of this dining room, and I'm grabbing Cheerios for the boys. And she says, do you need diapers? And I think my eyes must have grown like three sizes.

JACOBS: Camp Hope has gone through some changes since the arrival of the Lyttonites. Volunteers now prepare three meals a day. The camp had a room full of donated toiletries and clothes, which they offered to the stranded travelers.

BROWNLEE: We just settled into a couch, and we were surrounded by people. And we just started talking, you know, because there was nothing to do.

JACOBS: Soon, Brownlee realized some of the people around her, including the woman offering her kids toothbrushes, were from Lytton and that they lived in the lodge. In all, the camp welcomed 271 stranded travelers, says staff member Evy Conner. It would take several days for crews to clear the highway.

EVY CONNER: We set up beds in the auditorium. We had a ton of mattresses that we brought in from our cabins and stuff. And then they found every nook and cranny. I'm still finding mattresses in places I would never know that they would be.

JACOBS: Without road access, food eventually had to be flown in by helicopter for all the unexpected visitors. Some helped cook. The family of Samantha Brownlee, stranded with her children, was able to hire a helicopter to fly them out after a few days. She says it was strange to be leaving to return to her normal life knowing those from Lytton would stay.

BROWNLEE: I've talked multiple times now with the director of Camp Hope to just try to ask, what are ways we can show support? What are your plans for Christmas?

JACOBS: Scientists and many residents of British Columbia have linked this summer's heat and wildfire season and the recent storms to the intensifying impacts of climate change on the region's weather. The federal and provincial governments have pledged money to rebuild Lytton. But it's slow going. For now, the Lyttonites have no departure date from Camp Hope. Its director, Bill Gerber, says he expects the camp could house disaster victims again.

BILL GERBER: These superhot, superdry summers in B.C. is just - in essence, it's a tinderbox. We have so much forested land.

JACOBS: He was cut off from the camp by the landslides in the nearby city of Abbotsford, which saw major flooding.

GERBER: Up until now, we always thought it was a blessing to have our rivers and our streams and our lakes and our forests and our lumber supply in the beauty - in the natural rugged beauty and all the mountains. But all of a sudden, it's like - I don't know. Almost the blessing is a curse for a little while, right?

JACOBS: The camp had just gotten a phone call from someone in emergency management for the province. More rain was on the way. If there were more mudslides in the saturated mountains, could they be ready to accept more travelers?

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Hope, British Columbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "CATALYST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs
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