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Mother of Shuswap Paralympian left with deep gratitude for community after fire strikes family home

Natalie Wilkie able to put traumatic event aside, uses ‘incredible focus’ to win medals in Finland
Christmas 2021 in their family home prior to the Nov. 30, 2022 fire: Mom Karin Huster at back, with Natalie, Madeleine and Isabelle Wilkie from left to right. (Photo contributed)

Note: This article could be disturbing to some readers.

When Karin Huster returned home from work on Nov. 30, she was met with the unbelievable.

“The smoke alarms were ringing, all of them. As soon as I opened the front door I could see thick smoke already on the main floor and I could feel heat coming up from the basement, so I knew right away that there was something going on.”

It was such a complete shock. At first she was trying to find the family pets in the log home, a cat and a bunny, and then she had the idea that she could put out the fire, which was emanating from the basement. She attempted to go down but the heat and the smoke were too intense.

“Suddenly I had to shake my head a little and say, this is an emergency and you need to call 911 and let others deal with it,” she recounts.

The cat ran down into the basement and she had been calling him to come back. He ran back up the stairs but she couldn’t see where he went. After the firefighters arrived they found him behind the couch, where he had succumbed to smoke inhalation. She hadn’t been able to find the bunny either, who also perished in the fire.

Karin Huster is mom to Natalie Wilkie, well known for her skills as a Paralympic cross-country skier. Natalie, Isabelle and Madeleine all lived in the Ranchero home, although Isabelle was away at university and Natalie was readying to compete with Team Canada in the World Cup opener in Finland. Their older brother Dominick had already moved out to a place of his own.

The home sustained a lot of heat and smoke damage, but the outside walls are intact and the beams can be restored.

“Much as we think wood burns, it burns slowly,” Huster has been told. “It does lessen the blow.”

She said it was difficult telling her children about the house. Natalie was at first considering returning home but her mom told her there was really nothing she could do at this stage. She was, of course, very sad about the cat and bunny and worried about her things, particularly her Paralympic clothing. While her clothing, which was in a closet in the basement, was destroyed, her medals, fortunately, escaped unscathed.

Huster said Natalie has an incredible focus. She can block everything out and put all her energy into what’s at hand.

She clearly did that following the fire, winning five medals in the opener, including a gold in the biathlon on Dec. 18. Huster said Natalie was very pleased, having had a tough year with a long stint of Covid, followed by a nagging toe injury.

Read more: Natalie Wilkie, 7-time Paralympic medallist, honoured by Salmon Arm council

Natalie was scheduled to return home on Dec. 20.

Huster and her daughters have been staying in a cabin nearby on her parents’ property, so they can see their horses and three sheep from there.

Huster expresses immense gratitude for the kindness of friends and the community following the fire.

Friends have helped her do copious loads of laundry in a special solution to help rid items of smoke, while the women at Salmon Arm dry cleaners have been helping with more challenging items.

Emergency Social Services provided a gift card so the family could purchase needed items. Co-workers, people from her daughter’s school and many others helped with meals, loaned them clothing, gave them little care packages.

“The first few days, you walk around kind of catatonic, there’s so much to do, so much you’re missing…”

Huster’s family began building their home 20 years ago and have lived in it for 19. It’s not known what started the blaze. She said while furniture and clothing can be replaced, it’s the family mementos and treasures that are tough to lose.

The fire has given her a better insight into what people who are homeless or struggling go through, she said, even though it was brief for her family. She encourages people to pay it forward.

“I realize how vulnerable one can feel in that moment. There’s a lot of security in having the things we need for essentials of life.”

She is also grateful for all the small businesses who have been supportive, adding a treat or two to a purchase, or giving hugs and taking time to listen.

“I already knew we lived in a great town, but it is still so heartwarming to feel how compassionate and caring people are in sharing in others’ misfortunes.”

Read more: ‘Winters were brutal:’ Former drug user urges compassion for people living rough in Salmon Arm

Read more: Salmon Arm’s Natalie Wilkie wins back-to-back golds at Para Nordic World Cup
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Christmas 2021 in their family home prior to the Nov. 30, 2022 fire: Mom Karin Huster at back, with Natalie, Madeleine and Isabelle Wilkie from left to right. (Photo contributed)

Martha Wickett

About the Author: Martha Wickett

came to Salmon Arm in May of 2004 to work at the Observer. I was looking for a change from the hustle and bustle of the Lower Mainland, where I had spent more than a decade working in community newspapers.
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