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Salvation Army leader supports Kelowna-area fire fight with free meals

Officials have estimated more than 170 structures were lost in the blaze
Capt. Jennifer Hansen of the Westside Salvation Army poses for a photo in West Kelowna, B.C. on Friday, August 25, 2023. Hansen says she’s been part of a team that has been providing more than 1,000 meals a day at the height of the wildfire. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner

Jennifer Hansen was evacuated from her home in the West Kelowna, B.C., area last week, but that hasn’t stopped the Westside Salvation Army captain from feeding firefighters and other evacuees.

“It feels real good,” said Hansen, standing in front of a Salvation Army emergency disaster response vehicle parked at a West Kelowna community centre where hundreds of meals are being prepared.

“I’ve said to many people, I can’t put the fire out, but as a team we can come around and feed you and support you.”

Hansen said she and her family are “very fortunate.”

They were evacuated as the wildfire ripped through the area, but their home and neighbourhood escaped damage, she said Friday evening.

“For many, that is not going to be their reality,” she said. “They will not be going home for a significant amount of time. For me, it’s just an inconvenience.”

Hansen said she’s seen the fire’s devastation while helping deliver meals to crews on the front lines of the effort to contain the devastating blazes.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “It was almost like you were watching a movie and it wasn’t actually real.”

The fire’s destructive path appeared to follow the wind, with some houses barely touched and others burned to the ground with only their chimneys left standing.

Officials have estimated more than 170 structures were lost in the blaze, which remains out of control and continues to cover the region in a smoky haze.

At the community centre where huge pots brim with boiling potatoes, Hansen estimates she was helping oversee the the cooking and delivery of more than 1,000 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight meal for nightshift firefighters.

“It was well over 1,000 a day at the height of it,” she said. “Anything from pizza to smoked brisket. It was the full gamut.”

It’s now down to about 200 meals three times a day, Hansen said.

Rick Robins, a Salvation Army major who lives in Fernie in British Columbia’s Kootenay area, said he was on his way to visit family members when the wildfire hit. He’s stayed behind cooking and delivering meals ever since.

Robins was struck by a scene he witnessed while bringing food to firefighters in the Westside Road area of West Kelowna. A white roadside cross was left untouched by the wildfire, while the surrounding buildings were destroyed, he said.

The cross appears to have been left as a memorial to a person, said Robins, adding there was also a coffee can with a hat on top.

“It’s all burnt all around it,” he said. “There’s fire all around and then you’ve got this white cross. So, there’s hope.”

Hansen, meanwhile, said she was deeply touched by an evacuee couple who told her they had to “put down” their beloved horse that day.

She said the couple, who had lost their home to the wildfire, came back to the property to look for their horse and found it resting in an area where the family often gathered for special occasions.

“The husband said he was able to be with his friend at the last moments,” she said.

Hansen said she and her husband, Capt. Rob Hansen, are planning to conduct a service this Sunday at their Salvation Army Renew Church after postponing last week’s service and encouraging parishioners to help their neighbours.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press