ESS’ new mobile unit was deployed during an emergency response to Dease Lake as the ‘worst fire season on B.C. record’ took place last year. (Facebook Photo)

Emergency Support Services examines strategies after 2018 wildfires

Volunteers worked 5 months when typically 72 hours is the norm

Last summer’s wildfires in the Telegraph Creek area have triggered the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine (RDKS) and Emergency Support Services (ESS) to re-examine mass evacuation plans and strategies. It’s typically expected the volunteer-based service provides response assistance for 72 hours following an emergency.

However, ESS ended up providing care throughout the district for five months last year, and the coordinator is concerned this may become the norm.

“It was a challenge because we never experienced anything to this magnitude in our region before… the last five months of 2018 was just insane for us,” says Naomi Gourlay, ESS program coordinator. “We’re all trying to regroup and come up with plans so that we can prepare for the flood and wildfire season that will be upon us before we know it.”

The wildfires of 2018 have been noted as the worst fire season on B.C. record, burning close to 13,000 sq. km of forest. More than 1,200 sq. km burned in the Telegraph Creek area. “The Tahltan Nation itself incurred the worst structural damage caused by wildfires of any First Nations community in recorded Canadian history,” said Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, during a November visit to the area.

It wasn’t until Dec. 21 when evacuees finally began returning home that ESS was able to pull back. Gourlay says it’s been tough to plan ahead after spending so much time in response. Moving forward now, they would like to facilitate more regional and provincial discussion and collaborations.

Under the province’s Emergency Program Act, the local and regional authority “may implement all procedures that it considers necessary to prevent, respond or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster”. This includes utilizing its emergency plan of which ESS is a key component.

READ MORE: Telegraph Creek evacuees may be home by Christmas

Gourlay says that they had about 40 volunteers working around the clock in reception centres established in Terrace, Dease Lake and Iskut. They logged about 1,700 responder hours from the beginning of August. EMBC provided support by deploying mobile support teams from other parts of B.C.

The current volunteer-based ESS model is ready to handle level one and two emergencies — but the mass evacuations that took place across the Northwest were considered a level three response.

ESS with the RDKS is now evaluating what needs to be done to ensure they’re prepared for the next call, including developing strategies and examining ongoing capacities to deal with future evacuations.

Emotional support has been in place and will continue for both evacuees and ESS volunteers who have been deeply affected by the accounts of grief and loss.

“You can imagine that you’re dealing with people who have gone through a lot of trauma and how that can impact you as well, we have to think of that,” says Gourlay.

READ MORE: B.C. works to prepare for future wildfire, flood seasons

ESS’ operations are managed through the RDKS, with support from the City of Terrace.

Emergency Management BC (EMBC) covers the referral costs provided by ESS to evacuees. Over $1.7 million in referral was given out in terms of food, clothing and accommodation.

Throughout the year, ESS must establish relationships in the region with organizations, plus restaurant, store and hotel owners, to have signed agreements for their services and participation during emergencies. Local businesses are then reimbursed by EMBC.

At one point during last summer though, hotels in Terrace and Dease Lake were at capacity.

Gourlay says they have a stockpile of 250 cots and 500 blankets in storage in case they need to turn to group lodging as an option. This would mean setting up rows of beds in a mass space such as churches, schools and sports facilities. This has never been done before, but it’s likely to be used if regional disasters continue to grow in scale.

“We want to avoid opening up group lodging, as it would be a lot of work and resources. And with volunteers, it would be difficult to ask them to step up to that,” says Gourlay. “It’s going to require more creativity, working together hand-in-hand with the province.”

She says with the RDKS being such a large district in B.C., they face many unique challenges than their counterparts further south, with needs that must be addressed in upcoming discussions.

As part of their recovery process, the Tahltan/RDKS recovery manager has been contacting residents affected by the regional disaster to follow up on how they’re doing after the evacuations.

The Red Cross visited the area to conduct a second round of interviews in Terrace on Jan. 14 and 15, then Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek the week of Jan. 21.

“We also have to be mindful that there were other people involved beyond the community members of Telegraph Creek. The surrounding areas were also impacted and there’s a lot of residents there as well,” says Gourlay.

“Knowing one another really helps a lot in these small towns… We need to make it a priority to have these discussions in advance so we can consolidate all of our plans with a better understanding of what we need to do.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here


ESS held a volunteer appreciation event last December for those who worked around the clock in reception centres established in Terrace, Dease Lake and Iskut during the evacuations. (Facebook Photo)

Just Posted

Hamhuis hangs up his skates

The Nashville Predators defenceman and Smithereen spent 16 years in the NHL

Terrace and District Aquatic Centre to reopen in September

City lays out pandemic safety plans for reopening indoor recreation spaces, including pool and arena

Province, feds, Wet’suwet’en announce progress in MOU talks

Community engagement process launched to implement northern B.C. First Nation’s rights and title

Province, feds, Wet’suwet’en announce progress in MOU talks

External community engagement process launched to help implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title

Terrace Off Road Cycling Association’s HuB project is close to completion

Additional grant funding means the pump track will be asphalt instead of dirt

‘Don’t kill my mom’: Ryan Reynolds calls on young British Columbians to be COVID-smart

‘Deadpool’ celebrity responds to premier’s call for social influence support

Captain Horvat’s OT marker lifts Canucks to 4-3 win over Blues

Vancouver takes 2-0 lead in best-of-7 NHL playoff series with St. Louis

Widow of slain Red Deer doctor thanks community for support ahead of vigil

Fellow doctors, members of the public will gather for a physically-distanced vigil in central Alberta

Protesters showcase massive old yellow cedar as Port Renfrew area forest blockade continues

9.5-foot-wide yellow cedar measured by Ancient Forest Alliance campaigners in Fairy Creek watershed

Taking dog feces and a jackhammer to neighbourhood dispute costs B.C. man $16,000

‘Pellegrin’s actions were motivated by malice …a vindictive, pointless, dangerous and unlawful act’

Racist stickers at Keremeos pub leaves group uneasy and angry

The ‘OK’ hand gesture is a known hate-symbol

VIDEO: World responds to B.C. girl after pandemic cancels birthday party

Dozens of cards and numerous packages were delivered to six-year-old Charlie Manning

Expected fall peak of COVID-19 in Canada could overwhelm health systems: Tam

National modelling projections released Friday show an expected peak in cases this fall

Most Read