(Above) Captain Jennifer Henson (second from right), with Lt-Colonel Jamie Braund, divisional commander, B.C. Division, Colonel John Chamness, chief secretary, Colonel Lani Chamness, territorial secretary for women’s ministries, and Captain Rob Henson

All summer the wildfires have raged across the province of British Columbia, but two weeks ago they came perilously close to communities in the B.C. interior, prompting massive evacuations. Captain Jennifer Henson and her husband, Captain Rob Henson, are the corps officers of Renew Church in West Kelowna, B.C., an area hit hardest by wildfires.

When the call came for emergency disaster support, they quickly sprang into action. Like hundreds of Salvation Army volunteers and staff, the Hensons have been working long days to assist first responders and evacuees through The Salvation Army’s emergency disaster services programs.

To date, throughout the B.C. interior, the Army has provided 24,564 meals, 38,736 drinks, 30,405 snacks and 1,102 instances of spiritual and emotional care. The team at West Kelowna recently received visits from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gord Milsom, mayor of West Kelowna, to encourage them and thank them for their work.

As evacuation orders are gradually lifted and people begin returning to their homes, Editor-in-Chief Geoff Moulton spoke to Captain Jennifer for details of The Salvation Army’s incredible response.

How has the Army responded on the ground in West Kelowna? What types of services are you providing and to whom?

Captain Jennifer Henson: On the first day of evacuations, we started by serving refreshments to evacuees at the reception centre. The next day, we began serving three meals a day, every day, to thousands in addition to providing spiritual and emotional care.

Since people were experiencing long wait times for government vouchers for food, clothing and personal care, The Salvation Army purchased and collected donations of shampoo, toothpaste, towels, blankets and face wipes. We gave away these items free to evacuees.

We then launched our wildfire evacuee relief program where evacuees were invited to our community and family services space to meet with a caseworker. This helped them connect with resources while they waited for emergency government aid. We were able to support with grocery gift cards, gas gift cards, clothing and wheelchairs.

The second group we have been serving is firefighters. This began a couple of days into the evacuation and has carried on with three or four meals a day for up to 240 firefighters.

On the second day of evacuations, we were collaborating with one of our community partners at the Westside Health Network and speaking about the effect of this evacuation on seniors. A partner agency at the United Way provided funds to restart our seniors’ meal program. Within three days we were able to start delivering healthy meals to seniors straight to their front door. This was especially helpful to those who cannot go out because of the smoke.

Who is on your team?
All of our Salvation Army staff, many of our congregants and community volunteers. In fact, last Sunday, our corps in West Kelowna, Renew Church, cancelled their church service so that the congregation, many of whom are evacuees themselves, could serve on the front lines.

Where is the greatest danger now? Are there reports of damage?
Last week, the damage was assessed. In our community, 179 structures have been lost including more than 70 homes.

What is the sentiment amongst evacuees?
It depends on the day. In the beginning, people were anxious because the fire kept growing and more and more people were being evacuated. We began to see reports of structures lost and video footage of homes engulfed in flames. For evacuees from areas where the fire hadn’t reached, it was mixed feelings of relief and sadness for our neighbours who know that they are not returning to the same home that they left.

There is a strong sense of community as so many of us now have this shared experience. The demonstration of generosity and compassion from the community has been substantial and impossible to miss. We are truly caring for one another.

How are you providing spiritual and emotional care?
We have EDS workers trained in spiritual and emotional care who are available at the reception centre every day. We are also taking time to chat with the firefighters as many of them have not only experienced the trauma of this event, but they are also dealing with the fact that their homes have been completely destroyed. Yet they show up to work every day.

Are you partnering with other agencies?
Absolutely. Probably too many to list here but I will give it a shot: Central Okanagan food Bank, the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, Save-On-Foods, London Drugs, United Sikhs as well as two local Sikh temples. Many restaurants have been partnering with our EDS to provide meals to evacuees and firefighters, including Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, The Hatching Post, Murray’s Pizza, Red Swan Pizza, Green Bay Bible Camp, PizzAmoré, Crumbs of Comfort Catering and Popeyes.

We have also been partnering with the agencies to collect items for distribution from United Sikhs, Kelowna Cabs, West Cabs, Canadian Tire and Home Depot. Also, we have already received the financial commitments for crisis and recovery response from agencies such as the United Way, Okanagan Foundation, RBC Rotary, and a number of personal donations. 

Do you have examples of any personal stories of lives impacted?
There is one firehall with 24 members, and I heard today that 13 of those members lost their homes. But they’re showing up to work every day to save other people’s homes and communities.

We’ve had the privilege of connecting to a group of migrant workers who have been displaced as a result of the evacuations. In partnership with a local non-profit, we have been able to support them with food and clothing.

One night when returning to the hotel after midnight, we began chatting with one of the evacuees staying in the same hotel as us. My husband, Rob, asked him how he was doing, and he said that he had a difficult day. He and his wife had a beautiful home with acres of land and horses. He received a call that one of his horses had been found and went to the area with a veterinarian. But after a quick assessment, he had to put his horse down because it had sustained too much injury to its lungs and hooves. While this evacuee was grateful to be able to be with his horse in its final moments, it was also very overwhelming.

What are the next steps for The Salvation Army?
Through our experience two years ago when there was a fire in the adjacent community, we recognized many people will incur expenses that will never be covered through insurance or other aid. As a result, we have begun a recovery fund for people. We wanted to walk alongside them, providing them spiritual and emotional care, as well as practical assistance in the coming days of rebuilding. 


On Thursday, August 31, 2023, Ira Barrow (Major) said:

I have a nephew and niece living in Kelowna, so I have a personal reason, to be watching careful reports on the fire situation. More than that, I have been a victim-- as a child-- of wildfires, and as an adult I have worked to put down wildfires. They are as one poet put it, "Tiger burning in the night." I felt my heart sinking, but my spirits lifting, as I read the report on the Army's ministry to the community and those who have come there for safety and shelter. The loss! The hurt! The helping hand! The whispered prayer! (Even the story about the horse!) They all made me feel some of the pain and take time to to whisper a prayer for all people affected by fires across our country. God bless the firefighters and God bless those in supportive roles too. Rhank you for the report.

On Thursday, August 31, 2023, Tom Ellwood said:


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