From Ember to Inferno

Lessons learned from the Emergency Social Service (ESS) Directors for 100 Mile House in BC .

By Shaun Koopman

When a two-hectare wildfire began west of 100 Mile House, on July 6, 2017, it marked the beginning of the critical stage of the 2017 wildfire season in British Columbia. By the next day over 50 new fires had started, leading to a declaration of a state of emergency that lasted until September 15. All in all, between April and November, more than 1,300 fires engulfed the province, costing BC more than $564 million. The 2017 fire season was notable for three reasons: first, for the largest total area burnt in a fire season in recorded history; second, for the largest number of total evacuees in a fire season; and third, for the largest single fire ever in British Columbia.
On October 21, 2017 I sat down with Kerri Mingo and Liz Jones, the Emergency Social Service (ESS) Directors for 100 Mile House in BC to discuss their experience leading the ESS response in their community. As of that date they were on day 71 of the response phase and had not finished their full debrief.

What were some of the main successes of this season? 

Kerri: Our team was the main basis of our success. The response was long and hard, but our main core of volunteers really stepped up and when we had walk-in volunteers they were amazing as well. I think the response was successful all the way around, especially because nobody got hurt.Liz: Lots of things that went well. Our team came together immediately, even though the majority of our team members were themselves evacuees. They showed up with all their belongings, set up, and went to work even while they themselves were under an evacuation order. My husband and I moved into the Group Lodging Centre on July 6 and on August 7 I was still there. The job we had to do gave us a focus and distracted us from the potential consequences of the disaster.

With nine volunteers, our team registered 3,000 evacuees in the first three days.

Not one ESS volunteer signed out for the first three days. They might go home, but it was only for an hour or two, and then they would come back. I slept five hours in those the first three days. There wasn’t even any time to sit down because we were tasked with so much and needed to be present both in the Reception Centre and the Emergency Operations Centre. When it was time to evacuate, I was tasked with contacting other towns to see if they had room for us. We were told we couldn’t go to Williams Lake because it was under evacuation order, Kamloops was full, and we couldn’t go north. So we contacted Princeton, Kelowna, Chilliwack, and Vernon. While some communities said “we can take some of you” others said “we’re full with our own problems.” In the end we told our evacuees to go to Prince George or Kamloops, or to find a place with a relative elsewhere. Some evacuees were high risk, vulnerable populations the RCMP didn’t know how to handle, and we evacuated them by bus to Prince George.

A challenge was that we needed help with transportation of evacuees because we don’t have our own taxis or buses in 100 Mile. Nobody had ever planned for an evacuation of the town and even our ESS headquarters had to relocate. My husband and I stayed outside town that night in a tent and returned the next morning to see if we could help or if we had to leave too. Setting up mobile teams to go to evacuees in the areas no one else can get to, is not something that we’ve ever discussed in training, and I’m really proud of what we did.

Kerri: Three of the outlying communities not on evacuation order took it upon themselves to source their own food because we couldn’t help everybody – which is hard to acknowledge. For example, Forest Grove got their food by having 52-foot reefer trucks come in via logging roads.

Liz: Lac la Hache is an island that was in the middle of an evacuation zone that struggled to get food. Because they couldn’t get food or fuel, we had to make sure that we were getting food up to them. We did this by working with fire departments and food banks. The POD system was a challenge, but I think it showed our ability to come up with new plans under pressure.

The new links we developed with the First Nations was another positive outcome. We have a connection with our First Nations communities now and they are now going to come to our training sessions in the future. When we had to evacuate Canim Lake, that taught us humility and patience. We saw a sense of community that we don’t see in settler communities of European-descent.

With all the First Nations training that I’ve done, I find the sense of entitlement that can come from settler communities of European-descent very depressing. I was brought up that everyone is the same, so I’ve always struggled with that sense of entitlement, but during this response it hit me especially hard. We’d tried to make a connection before, but it was difficult. Yet this time there was more of a breakthrough, in that settler communities of European-descent realized that they may need some help, and we learned how we can better support relationships with First Nations in the future.

What were the main challenges of this season? 

Liz and Kerri: The biggest challenge was no matter how many times we went to fairs and public meetings, people still didn’t know what Emergency Social Services was. Another challenge was that throughout communications with the Cariboo Regional District (CRD), they did not really have a live picture of the scope and magnitude of the situation we were dealing with. They assumed we had an office and an ESS company phone and that we were established in a location. They didn’t believe it when we told them we didn’t have an office. Kerri took a picture of Liz’s keep and the trailer and sent it to the Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre in Victoria telling them “this is our office.”

We were not provided with the items we needed to do the job correctly. The CRD wanted to do conference calls and communicate via email, but my phone wasn’t capable of it. I could only get internet in the kitchen in the Reception Centre. We even lost radio and computer power for awhile. Also, when we were evacuated my computer was not packed.

Big city governments do not think outside of their urban centre. They don’t realize what it’s like in a small town. The CRD didn’t realize the lack of services our types of communities have – we don’t have taxis, and a lot of locations around town don’t have cell service, so people would have to go door-to-door for evacuation alerts. Many people in our remote communities did not know when a public meeting would take place, where to register, or even that they were under an evacuation order.

Our successes outshone the negatives. Unfortunately, we lost one evacuee who passed away from the stress, and that was hard.

What ESS capacities could be enhanced in the future? 

Kerri and Liz: There is no way we could have been fully trained for this. But the training we did have was set up well and taught us to think on our feet. If this happens again, we know we can do it, but better. There is always room for growth. Sharing what we did with other communities would be great for training.

We also need the province to recognize what ESS responders go through during a disaster. If we had more volunteers we could send more people into the communities to help, but we only have a small pool to draw from. Having had this event will help in the near future. But as the years go on if there isn’t another major disaster, then awareness will drop. In our area, disasters seem to happen every seven years: 2003 Barrier Fire, 2010 Buffalo Creek Fire, and this event in 2017.

Was there a particular group that required assistance the most?  

Kerri: We have an older population that needed lots of assistance being evacuated as well as help with smoke and other health issues. Many of them had low mobility. We had one lady who went to sleep without her hearing aids in, did not hear any evacuation messages, and got up in the morning wondering where everybody was. Her door had been knocked on several times but because of her impairment she hadn’t heard it.

The other group of people who needed a lot of assistance were the ones with mental health issues. 100 Mile has a surprisingly large number of folks who have mental health challenges. We also have a large population of people who live in the park.

Liz: There was a guy with a bike who slept under the stairs. We had to shelter a lot of people in ways that worked for them, to keep them safe and out of the weather.

One lady had just given birth to a baby in Kamloops, who then found out she had been evacuated and couldn’t go home. We couldn’t find a hotel for her and her baby, so we put them up in a special room where we could keep them together as a family unit. For people who couldn’t be parted from their animals, we gave them quiet back corners with cages.

Kerri: That was a concern too, because there weren’t supposed to be any animals in a Reception Centre or Group Lodging Facility!

Liz: The First Nations evacuees were especially grateful to be kept together as a family unit. Often they would say “thank you for letting us stay together.”

What would you like to share with other ESS across Canada with regards to volunteer management (for example, managing burnout), logistics, communications, etc.? 

Kerri and Liz: We’re hoping next time when we request help from the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) that our request isn’t seen as frivolous; rather, the EOC would understand that it’s because we need it, and that they should send help. This trust has to be better established at the local EOC level. We shouldn’t have to be assertive, to insist that someone is supposed to get us a resource. When resources didn’t arrive or were redirected, we rarely received a follow-up as to why it had occurred. Or if we received a rare follow-up, we had already gone on to find the resources that the EOC was supposed to find for us. As ESS, you better expect to wear many hats, even some that aren’t part of your typical job description.