Christine Brice and Gerry Schreiber returned from Kamloops on Sunday after a week of volunteering at a wildfire evacuation centre.
The two Ucluelet locals are members of the local Emergency Social Services team and responded to a call-out from Emergency Management B.C. to relieve volunteers from closer areas.
“They called and I had the time and I was excited to go and help,” Schreiber said adding that when he arrived he met many Vancouver Island volunteers as closer volunteer crews have been “worn out.”
He explained ESS’ role is to keep track of all the evacuees coming in and ensure they all have everything they need, like hotel rooms, food, and clothing.
“It’s also for family reunification. To make sure that everybody’s finding people,” he said. “It’s a centre for people to congregate and register so that everybody knows where everybody is and so they can find their families, get food and get the things they need.”
He said centres are set up “all over B.C.” including 100 mile, Kamloops and Prince George.
“They’re scattered around because sometimes the roads were closed of course because of the fires so people couldn’t get south or north so they just went wherever they could get to,” he said.
Brice said she has been an ESS member for the past 15 years and, under normal circumstances, ESS volunteers are trained to provide immediate assistance to disaster victims for 72 hours.
The wildfires though have stretched that time-frame to seven-day cycles, with many evacuees needing to renew as they spend weeks away from their homes.
Both Brice and Schreiber were grateful for the opportunity to use their training and assist those in need, but were also thrilled to earn valuable experience that could prove useful at home.
“Neither of us had ever responded to a large event like that so it was a great experience for us,” Schreiber said. “We’ve all done the training, there’s lots of courses to do and we’ve done all those courses but it’s different when you put it into practice, so it was nice to see that.”
Brice said they both tried to learn as much as possible during their work.
“That was really our approach when we were there,” she said. “We were assigned to work with the reception and referrals area and meeting with evacuees one-on-one, but the people in Kamloops were awesome and, when things weren’t quite so busy, allowed us to volunteer in other areas of the centre.”
Brice said she was grateful to her employer at Ardent Properties for giving her the time off she needed to go and help and added that she’s hoping to see a boost in local ESS recruitment.
“It’s really key to have people who have some understanding of ESS before an emergency happens,” she said adding an eight-hour course on registration and referrals teaches participants how to meet with evacuees, find out what they need and locate resources for them.
“When Williams Lake was evacuated, they had a whole bunch of people do that course in one hour and then try and do it with 10,000 people waiting outside,” she said. “If you’re the kind of person who thinks you’re going to want to help, then to take some training ahead of time would be really, really, great.”
Anyone interested in getting involved is encouraged to contact Ucluelet’s Manager of Emergency and Environmental Services Karla Robison at 250-726-7744.
Schreiber said the Kamloops experience was both humbling and heartening.
“It was very heartening because most of the people there, even in the lineup while they’re waiting, are just so appreciative of the support and everything that the ESS crews are getting,” he said. “It’s difficult to get information about whether your house is even standing so some people just want to talk. There’s lots of just talking to people.”
Volunteering also gave Schreiber a front row seat to the donations coming in.
“The level of giving is just amazing. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to what people are willing to put themselves out for. There’s truck loads of stuff coming in donated from all across Canada,” he said.
“To me it was just amazing to see how much people are coming together to give as much as they possibly can and then, of course, all the volunteers coming back for second, third, fourth rounds whenever they can afford to take the time.”
Schreiber, who has lived in Ucluelet since 1999 and a member of the ESS crew since 2009, encourages locals to get involved.
“It feels good to be part of an organization that really does a good job at what they’re doing. It’s amazing how it’s all organized. I’d never seen it in full operation before. It’s incredible,” he said.
“As much as there is lots of stuff happening at the management level, everybody’s still focused on the individual people that come in. We’re going through hundreds a day and yet still somehow the personal, individual, empathy and all that kind of stuff hasn’t changed at all. It’s still there.”
Schreiber had a quick turnaround after arriving home from Kamloops as he headed off for a second round of ESS volunteering on Tuesday morning in 100 Mile house where he will take on a larger role as an ESS Director.