It’s 9 a.m. and 15 cheerful volunteers are waiting for a briefing before the Columbia Shuswap Regional District’s Emergency Social Services reception room opens at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort.
As of Monday evening, ESS volunteers had registered a total of 394 wildfire evacuees from around the province, many who had been to the Kamloops Evacuation Centre first.
“Some people have been moved around three times,” says Cindy Zobac, who is helping to register wildfire evacuees.
Waiting to register, Jim Geillein said he and his wife, Jeanette, have come to Salmon Arm from 108 Mile Ranch.
When they were evacuated last Friday, the couple drove their RV and car to a park in 100 Mile House but were told they had to leave because they had a car with them.
Unwilling to move their car that was loaded with family photos and other prized possessions, the couple drove to a campground at Canim Lake.
But their son was not happy with his parents remaining in the Cariboo and travelled overnight from Vancouver Island to escort his mom and dad out of the area.
“The kids wanted us out,” says Geillein, who suffers from asthma, and notes the quality of air at Canim Lake was deteriorating. “My son went first and had to have a police escort through 100 Mile House where they were stopped by Canada geese crossing the road.”
The Geilleins also needed a police escort to get through and travelled south, almost getting into an accident in the process.
He was tired Tuesday morning as he headed in to register, but happy to be safe and staying with his daughter who lives in Salmon Arm.
Brothers John and Nathaniel Sigurdson are also relieved to be in town with family after their escape from the flames.
Evacuated from Williams Lake on Saturday, John drove to his brother’s home in Lac La Hache, a trip that took three-and-a-half hours instead of the normal half-hour.
With no food or stores open, the brothers headed for Salmon Arm on Sunday where Nathaniel’s wife and children have been staying with her mother.
“It’s just awesome, people have been amazing,” says Nathaniel, noting businesses and individuals have been a great help. “Salmon Arm is a great community.”
That’s the kind of news volunteers are happy to hear.
Back in the briefing, ESS director Cathy Semchuk is welcoming new volunteers and explaining routines and the importance of getting all the required information.
Four tables, each with two to four volunteers are set up for evacuees to complete their referral sheets and get access to comfort packs with basic necessities, along with food vouchers and names of people who have offered to open their homes to them.
Maps on the wall delineate wildfire evacuation areas across the province and a chart lists the six wildfires from which evacuees are coming.
As well as providing important information, Semchuk asks volunteers to listen to evacuees’ stories.
She says volunteers were distressed to hear an 85-year-old evacuee was sleeping on the floor and immediately took a bed and mattress to him.
“He was ecstatic,” says Semchuk, noting that, for the most part, evacuees have been very appreciative. “Just listen and understand, ask for a bit of a story and see if there’s anything else we can do to help.”
Derek Sutherland, CSRD Protective Services team leader, says the Shuswap Emergency Program has been fielding a lot of calls from people offering to volunteer or room in their homes. He says ESS has provided a list of potential billets but is not matching anyone.
In terms of where evacuees are staying, Sutherland says some are being billeted with local families, some are camping and one family is staying at the Salmon Arm Fairgrounds with their camper and three horses. Others are paying their own way to stay in a hotel room.
Because of the large numbers of people registering on Sunday and Monday, ESS has opened up another room where there are snacks and space for kids to play while evacuees wait to register.
My Time Renovations owner Justin Eveline has organized a group that includes Shuswap Tourism, Shuswap Grill, Save-On, Curves and Canoe Beach Café to host a Sunday afternoon picnic for the evacuees.
There will be a free barbecue for those who show up with their referral papers and an opportunity to unwind with music and swimming.
Eveline has already raised $600 in cash, which he matched and 2,000 pounds of food which he took to 100 Mile House and Williams Lake for firefighters.
“I just want to help out wherever I can,” says Eveline, noting he grew up in the Lower Mainland, lived in Ashcroft for a while and never before felt the sense of community he feels since arriving in Salmon Arm one-and-a-half years ago. “I am 31 years old and never in my lifetime have I seen this kind of devastation by a wildfire.”
Anyone interested in helping evacuees, can either offer a place to stay or donate cash to the Red Cross, making sure to direct that funds be assigned to wildfire relief in B.C.
SEP does not take donations but anyone able to house evacuees can register to do so by calling 250-833-3351. They recommend donating to the Red Cross in order to help wildfire evacuees.