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In August of this year, the McDougall Creek fire in West Kelowna pushed thousands of people away from their homes and properties. 189 structures were lost (Photo by Max Picton)

“I remember being younger and my parents would get the newspaper and see news of wildfires in the Okanagan. But it felt like it was maybe a couple of times. Now it feels like it’s every year, and it’s not just one place, it’s all over, which is very scary.”

Janna DenHaan has been living and working in Kelowna, British Columbia since 2022. She loves living in a lake community, exploring Kelowna’s many restaurants, and playing tennis at City Park.

But a few weeks ago she, and thousands of other residents fled the city to escape the smoke and flames as one of this year’s worst wildfires raged only kilometres away from her downtown apartment. 

“My partner and I weren’t forced to evacuate, we weren’t on an order or alert but we just got out of town because it was super scary and smoky and gross,” Janna says. “I was just so scared. We decided it was best for our mental health and well-being just to get out of town for the weekend.” 

Mental health is a field Janna is familiar with. She is a clinical counsellor in Kelowna and works with groups and individuals, helping them process what’s happening in their lives. 

“This past week, person after person has come into my office, and everybody’s just so freaked out about what’s going on,” Janna says. “I talked to so many people who are just feeling hopeless  about things, and that’s not okay with me.”

Janna is just at the beginning of her career. She plans on being there, to support people through it all along the way, but at the same time, she’d like to see more action taken by governments to help prevent catastrophes like the Kelowna wildfires from happening in the first place.

‘It’s the concerns about climate change and what’s causing this and how much is being done about it,” she says. “Are we doing enough? It doesn’t feel like enough is happening. We don’t have places for people to bring their concerns and participate in meaningful action. People need a place to land.”

Janna DenHaan (Photo by Melanie Patterson)

With large events that affect thousands of people and entire communities, like the recent Kelowna fires, Janna thinks that it’s helpful to deal with it in a group setting. 

“I think it’s so important for people to be able to share their stories with others and to know they’re not alone,” Janna says. 

This past month, she has been running a support group.

“We spoke about how we’ve all been impacted by the fire. I help people get quiet and notice what emotions are coming up, and what is the need underneath. So if it’s sadness, maybe I need more people in my life who care. Or if it’s anger, maybe I need to stand up and be heard in some way and say something about this.”

Janna admits that therapy isn’t for everyone, and there are lots of ways to process trauma and build inner strength and resiliency, but she strongly believes that what matters most, is people coming together with their neighbours. 

“People can’t do this work alone. We need to do it in community, we need to do it together because alone, it’s just too much,” Janna says. “Connect with your community because when disaster comes, community is going to be what we rely on.”

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