Photo (above): From left, Lt-Col Brian Venables, Joel Torrens and Lt-Col Anne Venables, DDWM, B.C. Div, provide support for people impacted by the wildfires in Williams Lake (Credit: Gaeil Farrar/Williams Lake Tribune)

This summer, British Columbia faced its worst fire season on record, as flames swept across the province, affecting thousands of people. A state of emergency was declared on July 7, with more than 900 fires raging across the province, and within 24 hours, 138 new wildfires and more than 4,400 hectares were ablaze.

In the wake of the disaster, The Salvation Army quickly mobilized its emergency disaster services, bringing comfort and practical support to firefighters, first responders and residents who were impacted by the fires.

Immediate Response
After the state of emergency was declared, crews began focusing on two of the largest fires between Ashcroft, Cache Creek and 100 Mile House, which were threatening the entire central region of the province.

From left, Jen Wolfe and Jade Ganje are ready to serve food in Williams LakeFrom left, Jen Wolfe and Jade Ganje are ready to serve food in Williams Lake (Photo: Lieutenant Darryl Burry)
John McEwan, divisional disaster management and emergency services director, under the direction of the divisional emergency disaster services (EDS) policy group, activated the Army’s emergency operations centre in Abbotsford to co-ordinate the response efforts. With additional crews from Alberta on stand-by orders, EDS teams from British Columbia provided immediate support to first responders, while serving up to 1,000 evacuees a day.

On July 12, Patricia Mamic, public relations and government relations for Vancouver Island, was appointed to the Provincial Emergency Co-ordinator Centre (PECC) in Victoria to assist with emergency response efforts at the provincial level. Working closely with the government, the Army provided financial, logistical, operational, tactical and physical support and direction to all affected areas of the province, as per their request.

“There are not too many times that you encounter a crisis of this proportion,” says McEwan, whose last response of this magnitude was in 2003 when The Salvation Army responded to rampant bush fires in Kelowna, “but the collateral damage of this situation is unprecedented in B.C. history.”

Army of Volunteers
As the number and immensity of fires continued to grow around various parts of British Columbia, local Salvationists and an army of volunteers were on the front lines, offering hope and practical support to first responders and evacuees at reception centres, as well as providing urgently needed food services, shelter at group lodging facilities, and vital information and counselling services.

By the morning of July 15, more than 224 fires were burning out of control, forcing the entire city of Williams Lake—which has more than 11,000 residents—to evacuate. Soon after that evacuation order was issued, another 36,000 people had to leave their homes and make their way to evacuation centres across the province, as the fires became continued, Salvation Army personnel were on the scene at more than nine designated arrival locations to welcome, feed and shelter evacuees and help meet the needs of those impacted.

Salvation Army volunteers Lolita Dunham (left), from Terrace, B.C., and Val Sheriff, from Nelson, B.C.Salvation Army volunteers Lolita Dunham (left), from Terrace, B.C., and Val Sheriff, from Nelson, B.C., man the Salvation Army food truck parked outside the resiliency centre in Williams Lake (Photo: Gaeil Farrar/Williams Lake Tribune)
“While it is our privilege and our duty to help those in need, we, too, had to be ready to evacuate with our own families,” reflects Lieutenant Darryl Burry, corps officer, Kelowna Community Church, which housed a reception centre during the crisis. “Despite the challenges, we considered it an honour to serve and provide hope in the midst of very difficult circumstances.”

Along with meeting the physical needs of evacuees, Salvation Army teams provided emotional and spiritual care. For the thousands of people who were displaced, stressed and left with little certainty, the opportunity to talk to someone made a profound difference. “I was privileged to listen to their stories and if they needed something, I’d try to provide that for them, whether it was some practical item they needed or just a listening ear,” says Captain Mark Dunstan, corps officer, Cascade Community Church in Abbotsford, who co-ordinated the Army’s emotional and spiritual care team.

Coming Home
As the summer went on, the Army continued to offer thousands of individuals support as more evacuation orders were issued and some were lifted, allowing people to re-enter their communities.

When thousands of residents returned, Salvation Army representatives were there to welcome them back with the essentials they needed as they prepared for the unknown, some having lost everything. Emotional and spiritual care specialists were deployed to help evacuees deal with the trauma, and the Army provided feeding assistance to those who were in need in areas such as Williams Lake, Kamloops and many other locations.

As of mid-August, The Salvation Army had provided more than 256,000 meals and beverages to fire evacuees, volunteers and first responders.

Lt Darryl Burry (right) speaks to Dave Dickson, emergency support services director, in Williams LakeLt Darryl Burry (right) speaks to Dave Dickson, emergency support services director, in Williams Lake
“We are honoured to help serve in a time of need,” says Major Robin Borrows, corps officer, Nelson Community Church. “It is always our great privilege to provide support to our neighbours and help restore hope when all seems lost.”

As the weeks turn into months, thousands of British Columbians will be rebuilding their lives and their communities, and The Salvation Army will be there to support them.

“It’s about good neighbours helping good people,” concludes Lt-Colonel Brian Venables, divisional commander, British Columbia Division. “No matter the circumstance, we are proud to be a part of this as we serve the wonderful people of British Columbia.”

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