During the 2023 wildfires in the Okanagan last summer season multiple transit bus drivers were put on the frontlines to help evacuate the residents of long-term care facilities like the evacuation of West Kelowna's Brookhaven Care Centre.

On Aug. 17, 2023, when evacuation orders were flying as a result of the McDougall Creek complex of wildfires, a fleet of buses from the Kelowna Regional Transit System was sent to help evacuate West Kelowna's Brookhaven Care Centre.

Sandra Hewitt, a HandyDART bus driver, was one of the workers that day who was put on the frontlines of wildfire evacuations.

"When you see the fires starting, you know what's coming. So, you sit on pins and needles and wait for the phone call and once it comes it's time to get all the drivers and buses together and head to wherever we're needed," Hewitt says.

"It was a huge undertaking and it's a lot of emotions, lots of tears are shed, but it's good to know that you are helping in getting these people out of harm's way."

On a normal day, HandyDART drivers like Hewitt take provide a door-to-door service for riders who don't have the ability to travel in conventional buses or use conventional transit routes.

During the West Kelowna evacuations they transported people from one long-term care facility to another to bring them to a safer place. These people often don't necessarily understand the situation they are going through making the job very stressful and emotional for everyone involved.

"When it happened, for me, going into the facility at Brookhaven, to see all of those people knowing that the majority have no idea whatsoever of what's going on and to know that you're going to be taking them to someplace where they have no idea where they're going; you know you have to make it okay for them," Hewitt says.

"You're taking them from one side of the lake that's burning and, as you're crossing the lake, you see that the fire has jumped to the other side and you're taking them out into Glenmore where you think 'oh my God, is the fire coming here,' so it's very stressful and it breaks your heart, it truly breaks your heart."

Hewitt said that this role bus drivers take on during wildfires comes with a lot of emotions, but the job they do daily teaches drivers, on a lesser scale, how to deal with stress and how to care for customers.

"Many tears were shed: by the residents, out of fear, and with us because we care about all of these people because those are people we've had on our bus at some point in time to take them places. And you know they're somebody's mother, father, aunt, uncle, sibling, they belong to someone so we have to look after them," she says.

Once the Brookhaven evacuation was over, bus drivers gathered to decompress.

"We chatted about it, high-five each other, and then the next day, we got to do it all over again," Hewitt says.

"We did three evacuations last year, with Brookhaven being the biggest one. We also did Lakeview Lodge and the other one was out in Glenmore. But really, it doesn't matter if it's fires, floods, whatever it is, it could be a building on fire, and the conventional bus drivers also help and it's a real team effort and it feels so great that we get to help."

BC Transit is responsible for coordinating necessary public transportation during emergencies under the Emergency Program Act and helped evacuate approximately 200 individuals during the 2023 wildfire season.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Gabrielle Adams or call (438) 830-1211 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

We welcome your comments and opinions on our stories but play nice. We won't censor or delete comments unless they contain off-topic statements or links, unnecessary vulgarity, false facts, spam or obviously fake profiles. If you have any concerns about what you see in comments, email the editor in the link above. SUBSCRIBE to our awesome newsletter here.