Taste & Terroir


Unsung Local Heroes: Selfless Stories from British Columbia’s Wildfires

They say it takes a village to raise a child. On the flip side, during times of crisis, it often takes just a few helpers to make a big difference for an entire community. That was the case this past August when the McDougall Creek Wildfire tore through West Kelowna, hopped the lake and ignited fires in Kelowna and Lake Country.

While firefighters battled the blazes, saving innumerable homes, community heroes on the ground away from the front lines aided evacuated families and their pets as best they could, by providing food and other necessities and lending a helping hand.

Wines of British Columbia called out for hero nominations and was overwhelmed by the response. We are honoured to profile three Kelowna residents who stepped up during the firestorm to help our community.

Rebecca and Lenny Schack, Little Schack Farm

What do you do when the Kelowna Farmer’s Market gets cancelled because of a wildfire, and you’ve just harvested 1,000 pounds of tomatoes? If you’re Rebecca and Lenny Schack, you organize a pop-up market and give farm-fresh produce to evacuees.

That’s what this small family with a big heart did during the McDougall Creek Wildfire. They set up a stand next to Okanagan Lifestyle Apparel downtown and donated tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and more, plus fresh bread from neighbouring Sprout Bread, to affected families.

“We had so much food that we had a tangible way to help,” says Rebecca, who farms just under an acre of land in Glenmore alongside her husband, Lenny.

The duo, who have two young boys, have been small-scale intensive farming on land that they lease for the past six years. When one crop comes out, another goes back in, and everything is done by hand. The Schacks practise regenerative farming, which focuses on soil health and reduced reliance on sprays.

They’re able to grow a staggering variety of vegetables during Kelowna’s growing season, from kale, spinach and asparagus in the spring, to peppers, broccoli and radishes in the summer. Little Schack Farm sells its produce at Kelowna’s two farmer’s markets between April and October, and also through a community supported agriculture model, where people sign up for a weekly supply of vegetables that’s curated based on what’s in season.

The week before the wildfire, the Schacks had farmed through a heat wave, getting up at 4 a.m. to hand-pick a bumper crop of tomatoes. With so much food on hand, and so many people in need, it was a no-brainer to give it away. They posted on Instagram (@littleschack): “If you’ve been evacuated and are in need of food – come down, it’s on us.”

Families came from the evacuation centre at Prospera Place for food supplies, and two wives of firefighters stopped by. The Schacks were able to fill bags of food for everyone to either take home or back to the centre. After the pop-up market, they still had hundreds of pounds of food that they dropped off at Mamas for Mamas, a charity that took the food to the Emergency Social Services (ESS) centres for evacuated families.

“The hardest part was getting people to take food, honestly,” says Rebecca. “People were finding it really hard to accept the gift.”

The community heroes also delivered their veggies to people whose houses had burned down, or who had been evacuated, including a friend whose mom had lost her home. They made up a box of sandwich fixings, with tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh garlic and fresh bread from Sprout, and were humbled when the family invited them inside.

“It felt like the most important thing we could do. Feed people. Bring people together,” says Rebecca. “This tiny role that we played… we felt honoured to be a part of it.”

They also worked their farm during the wildfire—wearing N95 masks outside in the toxic air—because the cucumbers and zucchinis needed to be harvested. Other farmers were in the same boat and reached out.

“There was this domino effect of other farmers that had all this produce and didn’t know what to do with it,” says Lenny.

So the Schacks started taking donations to the Central Okanagan Food Bank, which was able to distribute it.

The whole experience reinforced what the Schacks already knew: food is a bridge that brings people and communities together, even in times of crisis. It also helped them understand the meaning of community—helping others, and accepting help.

“That was a lesson we observed and we’ve tried to take that home with us,” Rebecca concludes.

Follow Little Schack Farm on Instagram: @littleschack.

Harmonie Basso, co-founder, Lend A Paw Pet Food Foundation

On the day the McDougall Creek Wildfire crested the ridge and began threatening homes and properties in West Kelowna, Harmonie Basso got a call from the Animal Lifeline Emergency Rescue Team (ALERT).

“How quickly can you get the pet food?” they wanted to know.

Basso is the co-founder of Lend A Paw Pet Food Foundation, an organization that feeds pets in need all over the Okanagan. In a typical month Lend A Paw supplies 15,000 meals to some 200 cats and dogs and another 100 small pets such as gerbils, birds and iguanas.

During a crisis such as a wildfire, however, the need skyrockets. It’s not just people who are evacuated from their homes and thrust into a new reality without food and shelter, but pets as well. While ALERT rescues large animals like livestock, or pets that get left behind, they rely on Lend A Paw to deliver essentials like food and pet supplies.

With the fire bearing down on Basso’s West Kelowna neighbourhood, Basso realized she needed to save the food, which was stored in a shipping container outside of her home.

“All of the volunteers came and we started loading up the food as fast as we could,” recalls Basso, an animal lover whose goal with Lend A Paw is to make sure people are able to keep their pets during hard times by supplying a “paw up” with food and supplies.

Ten volunteers loaded up their cars with food, then Basso grabbed her own animals — an Irish wolfhound and a cat — and together with her husband, evacuated their home. They picked up their son from daycare and drove to Nakusp to regroup at her in-laws’ house.

The one thing she didn’t remember to bring in the heat of the moment? Food for her own pets.

What Basso never forgot, though, was a sense of purpose. From Nakusp, she began dispatching volunteers and organizing pet food and supply deliveries to the Emergency Social Services (ESS) centres in the valley. When she returned to Kelowna three days later, she continued running pet food to those in need from a suite at Manteo Resort that had a garage.

Surprisingly, kibble wasn’t the most urgent need. Many people thought to grab the bag of dog or cat food when they fled their homes, but things like litter boxes, leashes and other supplies were completely off the radar.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated being evacuated for two or three weeks,” says Basso — including herself.

What’s remarkable is that Basso orchestrated this extraordinary pet care effort while she was evacuated from her own home. During the first few days, she didn’t even know if her house had survived the flames, but helping other evacuees and their pets was a happy distraction that helped her cope with the uncertainty, she says.

Four months later Basso is back in her house, but Lend A Paw is still helping families who lost their homes.

“We are able to give them bowls, food, beds, leashes, everything they would have lost,” says Basso. “There are also people who were financially hit pretty hard, so we’re supplying them with food.”

The 2023 fire was a terrible time for the community, but this hero chooses to see the positives: people who weathered the disaster with their pets by their sides, and a city that came together to help.

Donate to or volunteer for Lend A Paw Pet Food Foundation, or follow them on Instagram at @lendapawpetfoodfoundation.

Jamie Carpenter, community volunteer with Special Olympics Kelowna and Mamas for Mamas

“If there’s a volunteer opportunity, I’m there!”

This seems to be Kelowna resident and community hero Jamie Carpenter’s mantra. She’s a dedicated volunteer who had already donated thousands of hours of her time to causes in the city long before the McDougall Creek Wildfire swept through town.

Carpenter, who works for Interior Savings, has been the volunteer event director for Motionball Kelowna for the past seven years. The event has raised over $ 1 million for Special Olympics Kelowna, an organization that gives individuals with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to try and succeed in a variety of sports, from skating to skiing. The funds raised go toward keeping the fees low for Special Olympics programs, helping the organization book gyms and event spaces, and enabling Special Olympics athletes to attend sporting events and tournaments.

She also coaches Special Olympics swimming and Active Start and FUNdamentals programs for kids. And, as a youth coordinator for the organization, she raises awareness about the programs and encourages more youth to get involved in the world of supported sports.

Basically, Carpenter has years of experience helping Kelowna residents who need extra support. So when the call came during the firestorm to volunteer with Mamas for Mamas, a charity that assists mothers, caregivers and families in crisis, Carpenter was all in.

“I spent my time there accepting donations, putting together donation baskets, preparing items for firefighters, just making sure that everyone in the community was taken care of,” she says.

Baskets were curated based on need and included everything from food and clothing to more specific items like diapers or feminine supplies. When an evacuee came in with her husband and toddler, wearing her spouse’s clothes, Mamas for Mamas volunteers gave her a hug and let her have whatever the family needed for the next few days.

Carpenter also helped load up supply vans for firefighters so the folks on the front lines would have Gatorade, water, fresh fruit and protein bars.

“It was super heartwarming to see that everyone in the community was being taken care of,” says Jamie.

The crisis revealed that in Kelowna, there’s no lack of people who want to help and have a passion for volunteering and making a difference.

“We’re a fairly small city, but there are so many people out there putting their best foot forward,” she says.

As for what’s next, Carpenter wants to focus on expanding the youth program within Special Olympics Kelowna.

“My plate is pretty full,” says this super volunteer, but don’t count her out for other opportunities just yet. “I don’t know how to say no.”

Harmonie Basso, Rebecca and Lenny Schack and Jamie Carpenter are just a few of the local heroes that stepped up during the McDougall Creek Wildfire. Those days in August were trying for our community, but they showed that people often put their best foot forward during times of crisis. Kelowna is stronger because of helpers like them.

Read the story of our winner of the BC Hero contest here.

By Lisa Kadane – Lisa Kadane is a travel and lifestyle journalist. She lives in Kelowna, BC with her husband, two kids and Brittany spaniel. She writes about everything from heli-skiing to travelling with her son, who has autism, in publications including AFAR, Best Health, Dreamscapes, The Toronto Star, Today’s Parent, Vacations magazine and Postmedia newspapers.

Website: https://www.lisakadane.com/