A team of 68 volunteers have been working tirelessly at Vernon’s Emergency Support Services (ESS) reception centre to assist people from the Central Okanagan and Shuswap who were forced to leave their homes due to raging wildfires.
In just 10 days, the volunteers at the reception centre at Kal Tire Place Arena have registered and helped out just under 2,200 evacuees. To put that into context, 3,000 evacuees were registered over 40 days in 2021 during the White Rock Lake wildfire.
It was a whirlwind of a start for the reception centre, which was activated Thursday afternoon, Aug. 17, when the McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna and what is now called the Bush Creek East fire in the Shuswap were forcing waves of evacuation orders. Evacuees started to arrive at the centre around 11 p.m. The centre remained open until 2 a.m. Aug. 18. A few hours later, it reopened at 7 a.m. for another full day of work, and the work hasn’t stopped since.
Many volunteers have served for several consecutive days since the reception centre was activated.
Bree Cawley has been a volunteer at the centre since the very beginning of the emergency. Her husband is a firefighter who was involved with the White Rock Lake wildfire two years ago, which pushed her to get involved with Vernon ESS.
Overall, she said the experience has been “tiring, amazing, emotional — all of the above.”
“We’ve got such a spectacular and dedicated crew here and when you look around this room it’s a diverse group of volunteers that are all here for the common good to make a positive and immediate impact for our community,” Cawley said.
Evacuees register with the Evacuee Registration and Assistance (ERA) tool in order to receive provincial supports. There are several stations at the Vernon reception centre where evacuees can register with the help of a volunteer. It’s about a 30-minute process.
The volunteers are skilled at getting evacuees through the registration process, helping them overcome feelings of anxiety and stress. The volunteers can help get evacuees everything they need to navigate days or weeks of uncertainty.
“These evacuees are possibly having one of the worst days of their lives, so these people in here are amazing at just calming down, getting the information out of people and getting them into a room, getting them some clothing, everything that they had to leave their house without,” said Mike Walroth, deputy chief of emergency management for Vernon Fire Rescue Services.
Vernon Fire Rescue Services has assisted with the firefighting efforts in the Central Okanagan. VFRS sent out an engine with four personnel as well as a tender with another four on board. The tender just arrived back at the station yesterday.
It’s been a balancing act between providing as much mutual aid to neighbouring communities as possible while still making sure that Vernon has all the resources it needs during the height of wildfire season, said Walroth.
Cawley said the volunteer base at the reception centre is as diverse as the City of Vernon as a whole.
“I think when you look around the room, this is sort of a testament to the greater community of Vernon when we’ve got retirees, we’ve got students, we’ve got business owners, we’ve got professionals who are all taking time out from their own personal lives and their own personal families to work for the greater good of the communities,” she said.
And the positive energy the volunteers bring to their vital positions is just the cherry on top.
“Thursday night when everything was going on, we had smiling volunteers coming in, performing their roles, and now we’re on day (10) and those same volunteers are still smiling,” Walroth said.