As part of UNBC’s response to the 2017 wildfire emergency, the University created a special bursary to assist new and returning students affected by the wildfires. Contributions from the University and donors helped 36 students to continue their studies and overcome the financial obstacles of this natural disaster.
Mackenzie Howse was on her lunch break from work on the afternoon of July 7, when she received the message so many people in British Columbia’s interior were dreading – wildfires were getting dangerously close to her home in 150 Mile House and it was time to leave.
Howse, a third-year forestry student at the University of Northern British Columbia and recipient of the 2017 B.C. Wildfires Tuition Bursary, left her job at Beaver Valley Feeds in Williams Lake and headed straight home as quickly as possible. With her mother out of town on business, it was up to the 20-year-old student to pack up the valuables from the family home, round up the pets and drive north to safety.
The gravity of the situation became apparent as soon as she looked out the window.
“I could see the flames coming over the hills from the highway just in front of our place,” Howse recalls. “I stopped at a little rest stop before I started driving and I called my mom. I remember telling her, ‘I can see seven giant smoke plumes from here.’ ”
Not sure what to bring with her, Howse packed a small bag of clothes and collected some family photo albums. Then she loaded the family’s two dogs and one cat into the car for what turned out to be a six-hour trip to Prince George.
Howse and thousands of others made it safely to Prince George for what turned out to be the first day of a three-week long evacuation saga. Thankfully, for Howse and her family, there was no property loss as their residence was unharmed. Still, being away from home and the uncertainty of when they might be able to return took a toll on Howse and other evacuees.
“The amount of support we received during this whole ordeal was nothing short of amazing,” Howse says, thanking the people who opened up their homes to evacuees like herself.
In August, while back at work, Howse received another important message. This time it was good news.
As part of UNBC’s response to the wildfire emergency, the University created a special bursary to assist new and returning students affected by the wildfires. Contributions from the University and donors helped 36 students to continue their studies and overcome the financial obstacles of this natural disaster.
“When I found out I received the bursary, I was in the middle of doing something at work and I audibly squeaked a little bit,” she says as the memory brings a smile to her face. “Everyone at work gave me a funny look, but I was so excited. I told them, ‘I just got a bursary!’ ”
Howse was out of her home for three weeks and spent the first half of that time in Prince George. She volunteered at the Emergency Reception Centre, where she helped other evacuees register so they could access important services.
“It was wonderful to talk to people who were in the same situation,” she says. “We were all in the same boat together.”
After 10 days in Prince George, Howse reunited with her mother in Victoria. They spent the rest of the evacuation period in the provincial capital.
When the situation stabilized, the evacuation order gave way to an evacuation alert. It allowed Howse to return home and resume her summer job, but the anxiety level remained high.
“We tried to get back to normal,” Howse says. “It was still so stressful not knowing what was going to happen next and if the fires were going to threaten our community again.”
Her family kept an evacuation bag next to the door and they were prepared to leave again at a moment’s notice.
Work was also more challenging. Working outside at the garden centre, Howse needed to wear a mask due to the thick smoke that persisted in Williams Lake for the rest of the summer.
The new academic year has been a welcome change for Howse. She is beginning her first full year as a forestry student, after starting at UNBC in the biochemistry and molecular biology program. Still, she is thinking about friends who lost their homes to the fire and others whose evacuation orders continued into September.
“It’s still tough, even though I’m back at UNBC and classes are going full bore right now, I still have friends who are evacuated,” Howse says.
Reflecting on the summer, Howse says she will remember all the people who came together to support those in need – including the UNBC donors who contributed to the Scholarship and Bursary Growth designation.
“It really was wonderful example of community,” she says.
Every semester students need financial support in order to attend or remain in school. Your gift to Scholarship and Bursary Growth helps inspire next-generation leaders, like Howse, and supports UNBC’s Northern Leadership Campaign. To donate, click here.