The Prince Albert U13 Royals baseball season came to an early end on Friday when organizers cancelled the AA Western Championships due to the growing McDougall Creek Wildfire in West Kelowna, B.C.
Royals coach Jason Van Otterloo said the decision was understandable but still difficult for the players, who have done everything the coaches asked this season.
“They have been so committed to everything. It was heartbreaking,” Van Otterloo said.
“It’s heartbreaking when you tell the first group of parents because you got to talk to the parents first so they can understand how to tell their children and be there if the kids have questions,” he added.
Van Otterloo said that as coaches, they know this is an opportunity that does not come around every year.
“Then you got to tell the kids who’ve done all the work that it’s not going to happen,” he said. “It’s not like it’s going to be delayed and it’s going to happen in a week because that is not in the cards. It’s just an opportunity gone. It’s one of the more difficult things I’ve probably ever had to do.”
Van Otterloo said that the week was a different turn of events than what they had planned. The team flew into Kelowna in various flights on Thursday, and even then, they could tell something was wrong.
“Thursday was kind of a predecessor to just how crazy things were going to get,” he explained. “I don’t think any family got into Kelowna smoothly just because some of the smoke from some of the other fires was already in the area.”
He said that one family booked a flight direct from Regina to Kelowna but got to the airport in Regina and the flight was cancelled instead drove from Regina overnight on Thursday so their player could be on the field Friday morning.
“We had a practice Thursday night in Kelowna and I had eight players there instead of 13 because people were still landing and still getting into town,” he said
Van Otterloo was on one of the first flights to arrive. He said that the flight circled the city for 25 minutes because of the amount of planes trying to land and because of the smoke.
The team managed to get in a practice on Friday morning. The Western Championships in Kelowna had three age groups 13U, 15U, and 18U AA with three diamonds in action. The first set of games on Friday went off without any issues but the second set including the Royals did not.
The Prince Albert squad began play against the B.C. representatives from North Delta, but organizers suspended the game after four innings due to the smoke.
“In the morning games, there was almost no smoke and the wind shifted direction probably at about 10:40,” Van Otterloo said. “That’s 40 minutes (or) 50 minutes before our game. Then the smoke came in heavily and it did get really smoky in the city there.”
All other games were suspended along with the Royals game. Then at 1 p.m. organizers decided to suspend all the afternoon and evening games.
“(They said), ‘we’re just going to call it now. Let’s not go back out and try to cram some games into the smoke because it wasn’t getting any better.”
At the time as a team thought the games would just be rescheduled and they still had baseball tournament plans on their mind. At around 4 p.m. on Friday the team received an email from the Western Canadian Baseball Association representative that they would be cancelling. Van Otterloo said organizers wanted to free up hotel rooms. There were also three Kelowna teams playing who might have to evacuate their homes.
Van Otterloo, who at the time of the interview was in the Calgary Airport, said that the smoke he drove through on Saturday was bad all the way to Sicamous.
“Then actually (on) Friday evening, the road to Vernon was closed,” he said. “The fire was so close to the airport and so close to the road that there was no road out of town, so to speak. We couldn’t get to Vancouver, couldn’t get to Penticton, couldn’t get to Vernon.”
On Friday, the team went bowling and were the only people in the bowling alley. He said some people from the team left early Saturday morning.
“At this point, I think we’ve got everybody out of Kelowna except one family who is actually staying with family from Kelowna,” Van Otterloo said.
“It’s just it is so smoky there and the fires in certain places, it’s so dry that it moves like a grassfire,” he added.
The fire spread from its starting point in West Kelowna when embers jumped Okanagan Lake on Thursday.
“Thursday night after practice we all went to different restaurants,” Van Otterloo said. “After we came out of the restaurant, I was able to see the West Kelowna fire from our restaurants and it’s on the other side of the lake, and Lake Okanagan is not small. We thought we had a lake between us and that fire and we didn’t think too much of it.”
When they woke up Friday they heard that the fire had jumped the lake in 15 different spots and started spot fires.
“The fire department was just run ragged trying to keep up with that sort of stuff … and they have been in drought conditions for months, so it was like grass fire. It just burned, there was nothing to stop it,” he explained.
Van Otterloo said that he was certain every team trying to get out of Kelowna faced similar challenges because of the closure of the airport.
He said that in certain sections of the city, the visibility was so reduced that you could see barely over a block away.
He said that they rented a car and called the agency and said they would drop the car off in Calgary.
“The first half hour of that drive out of Kelowna it was really smoky,” he said. “It was not quite like the Fort McMurray apocalyptic fire, but it was eerie.”
He said that there was an eerie orange haze in the Okanagan Valley but it cleared once they got out. Van Otterrloo expected to return to Prince Albert early Sunday morning because he had a late flight booked out of Calgary.
“We had a lot of families with different choices. Some people had their own vehicle there, but we do have a few families who have made it all the way back to PA. They drove through the night last night and they’re back in PA now and now we’ve got one family who had already planned on going on a holiday after Kelowna.”
Van Otterloo and other families were in Calgary that they would meet with later on Sunday.
“Then different families are getting on different flights trying to get back to here, depending on what’s available,” he said
Van Otterloo said they could have flown out Monday from Calgary but things fell into place with four seats on the Sunday evening flight.
Van Otterloo said the tournament communications were outstanding. He added that losing a chance to play at Westerns was nothing compared to what the people in Kelowna could lose.
“It’s hard to lose the tournament for the boy’s sake, but none of us are losing our houses,” Van Otterloo said.
Van Otterloo said one of the coaches from a host Kelowna team had been evacuated and was watching the fire destroy his house through a doorbell camera.
“You hear that story and you go, ‘wow baseball is not quite so important,’” Van Otterloo said.
He said the story put everything into perspective.
“There’s loss for us temporarily, but there’s some people who are losing everything,” he said.