When Jamie Leighton saw the devastation of last year’s Fort McMurray fire, he hooked up his smoker trailer, loaded his truck with meat and hit the road.
“It’s one of those things, man. I mean, I did it on a whim last year. I couldn’t sit home and watch everything, it was driving me nuts,” Leighton told the Reporter.
Leighton, who owns local barbecue catering company Porkmafia, spent almost two weeks in Edmonton feeding families who had escaped the inferno with little more than the clothes on their backs. It was a very emotional ride.
“I did a lot of crying, let’s put it that way,” he said. “It was a real emotional thing for me, and I swore to myself if that stuff ever happened again, I would go.”
So as he watched the wildfires tear across B.C’s interior, Leighton sprang into action. As he had the year before, he packed his bags, prepped his trailer and put in a call to Johnston’s, his pork supplier.
He left his home at 5 a.m. on July 10, stopped in Chilliwack to pick up the more than 400 pounds of meat Johnston’s had donated, and made his way to the evacuation centre in Kamloops.
Over the next four days Leighton kept his smoker cooking around the clock, eventually cooking up over 2,000 pounds of meat and doling out roughly 2,300 meals to evacuees and firefighters.
“People were kind of shocked that I was cooking all this food,” he said. “I was cooking prime rib, chicken … stuff that I knew this is the kind of thing that takes the sting out of it for maybe five or ten minutes while they sit down and have a decent meal.”
Leighton was quick to downplay his own efforts, instead heaping praise on others, both in Kamloops and the Lower Mainland, who he said made the whole thing possible.
There was, of course, Johnston’s, who sent up another 300-plus pounds of meat in a reefer truck on day two. And the friend of his who lives about a half an hour outside of Kamloops who raised $3,000 to buy another 500-600 pounds of meat to feed the hungry masses.
And then there were all residents of Kamloops who came out to pitch in throughout the week. Anytime Leighton found himself running low on something, he only had to post on a local fire relief Facebook page, and within 20 minutes he’s have, for example, a fresh supply of potato salad.
“Everything we cooked, everything we served was donated by the people in Kamloops or the people down here in the Lower Mainland,” Leighton said.
From the time he started serving people at 11:30 a.m. to the time he closed shop for the day — often after midnight — he had a steady stream of 10 to 15 volunteers helping him prep, serve and clean.
And then there were the people who brought board games and goodie bags for the kids of evacuees.
“It is a community. It’s kind of like a little town for awhile, you know? They come together and they look after each other, and they just do the best they can,” Leighton said. “I had this guy show up with his pickup truck and in the back he had 50 soccer balls. He went to Walmart and bought every soccer ball they had, and he showed up and gave me all the soccer balls so I can hand them out to the kids.”
If he could, Leighton said, he’d have stayed up there until the fires were all out. In fact, the only reason he came back when he did was because he had a prior commitment to cook for 120 people in Mission on July 15 that he couldn’t break.
“These people book me three to five months in advance, so I really had no choice to come back, or I would have stayed,” he said. “It’s really tough. I was very fortunate just to do what I did.
“I’m very busy until Sept. 15. I’m booked every weekend and I’ve got some weddings coming up. These things take more than a day to prepare for; it’s a three or four day preparation. … But I mean, if it continues on throughout the summer, I definitely am going back up there. Because this doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon.”
And that’s just what he did, hitting the road again on Sunday to once again help feed people forced from their homes by fire and hopefully give them a moment’s peace and comfort.
“When you’re displaced from your home it’s kind of a scary situation,” Leighton said. “I knew that these people were lost and just to give them a little five, ten minute break from the stress of what was going on, I knew it would make a difference. Or at least, I hoped it would.”