Spending time in an American Wal-Mart parking lot isn’t the vacation that a Canadian couple planned on having. But for Paul and Destee Klyne of Penticton, B.C., there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
The Klynes say they are spending their vacation helping those who have been displaced by the rampaging wildfire in Northern California. The fire has been called America’s deadliest in a century, a massive blaze that has destroyed thousands of structures and, as of Thursday, claimed the lives of at least 56 people, with reports stating that 300 were still unaccounted for.
“These people are devastated,” said Paul, who spent 11 hours with his wife Destee flipping burgers and cooking hot dogs on Wednesday. “To be here, to make a small contribution to their community … it’s tough. If people have seen the news.”
WATCH BELOW: California Gov. Jerry Brown said that the wildfires taking place are the “new abnormal” and that they have their “work cut out for us.”
The Klynes’ trip to California originally began as a quick getaway to Paradise, to visit good friends. Originally, Destee booked a spa vacation, but then told Paul he was going as well.
“Then the fires hit. And our AirBnB got burned,” said Paul, referring to the destructive Camp Fire that all but levelled Paradise. “So we booked a hotel in a neighbouring city. But when we were on our way, on the flight there we got a text message saying the hotel rooms were for evacuees only. Although we had arranged for an evacuee to stay with us, we said, ‘OK, we don’t have a hotel room now. What are we going to do?’
“So we booked in Sacramento, which is an hour and a half commute from the hub in Chico where we are working.”
The couple didn’t know what they were going to do, but they knew they wanted to do something. So the plan was this: The money they had planned to spend on pampering themselves was now going to help others.
“We kept on hearing about the Wal-Mart parking lot [in Chico], and thought ‘Maybe we can help there.’ So we picked up a bunch of $25 gift cards and our AirBnB host in Sacramento gave us $100 and we went there,” said Destee.
The couple found out though that the Wal-Mart parking lot wasn’t an evacuation centre; rather, it was an overflow lot from capacity-filled shelters.
“So people are showing up in the Wal-Mart parking lot with their tents and their kids,” said Destee.
“And food vendors are showing up,” Paul said. “He fed everybody until he got cleared out. And then someone gave him $2,000 to buy some more food. They reload with food and they’re feeding people. Now tables are starting to show up. You should see how this thing is starting to develop.”
“People are pulling up in their cars and are unloading [donations],” Destee said. “Or people come by and ask, ‘What do you need?’ The next thing you know, they’re back and their vehicle is full of that stuff.”
Hailing from the Okanagan, a region with a history of wildfires, the Klynes say they are sympathetic to what’s going on in fire-ravaged California.
“We can empathize a little bit,” said Paul. “But the devastation here is . . . the biggest fire [the Okanagan had] was 2003 in Kelowna and a lot of homes  were lost. Here, it’s 7,000 structures. Incinerated. It’s crazy.
“We have a small taste of what it’s like to be displaced and we have had people evacuated and helped in our own community. But the magnitude of this is huge by comparison regarding structures and lives.”
WATCH BELOW: Officials said Wednesday that the death toll from the Camp fire in northern California has risen to 56, and that investigators had “tentatively identified” 47 remains.
In donating their time, the Klynes say “we’re able to, with love, give someone a little something that might help them just another inch in their life. With a note that says this is from your friends north of the border. We love our American neighbours and we just want to show you that we care.”
Yet in helping others, the Klynes admitted it hasn’t been easy, with Destee saying “I was overwhelmed with different emotions,” and Paul adding “at one point in time, I had to take a break and step away and I melted down.”
“The stories are heartwrenching,” said Destee.
The Klynes also organized a small fundraiser on Facebook titled Butte County Wildfire Victims. The goal was to use funds for purchasing items in Sacramento, then transporting them to Chico.
The Klynes plan on returning to Penticton this week, and are eyeing Sunday as the return date.
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