An imperfect solution: CORD Emergency responds to 'trauma bus' accusations | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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An imperfect solution: CORD Emergency responds to 'trauma bus' accusations

Wildfire has taken many houses down to their foundations.

The Central Okanagan Regional District says the escorted bus visits, nicknamed “trauma buses” by West Kelowna residents, have been standard practice since the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park Fire.

Residents of Westside Road and Bear Creek were less than pleased to be offered an escorted bus tour of their scorched neighbourhood to view the damage sustained to their properties.

However, this has been a well-received service in years past, said Jodie Foster at Central Okanagan Regional District.

“(The bus service has) been used a number of times in the central Okanagan… going back as far as 2003,” Foster said. “With the White Rock Lake fire, also with fires that happened in Lake Country, I think it was 2008, 2009. So, it has been a practice in the Central Okanagan to try and let residents see those properties and their neighbourhoods as soon as it's safe to.”

The same service was also offered this year to residents of the Lake Okanagan Resort after it was also lost in the McDougall Creek Wildfire.

“We had between Lake Okanagan Resort and the other areas, pretty close to 300 units that were lost,” Foster said. “We did have several hundred people attend all of those tours and did have generally very good feedback about being able to get in and start seeing their neighbourhoods and their properties and start to be able to move forward knowing what's actually happened.”

In general, the bus service has been well-received, she said, but admits it is not a perfect solution.

“I think that it's been, I mean, generally well accepted,” she said. “We had hundreds of people that came this time and have other times when we've done this as well. But absolutely (we are) recognizing that it's not ideal for anybody to see their home when it's been lost. So, is it perfect? By no means. Is it a balance between helping people start the process of grieving when they've lost a structure? Absolutely it is.”

Two residents per household were allowed aboard the bus. They rode with fellow neighbours and two certified grief counsellors and had to remain on the bus for the duration of the tour.

“There's a provincial organization that's called the Disaster Psychological Assistance Program,” said Foster. “There were two counsellors on each of the buses to assist residents. It's often very difficult for people to see their neighbourhoods and properties when they've been damaged so significantly by fire.”

The prospect of viewing her home alongside her neighbours and two grief counsellors appalled local resident Jaclyn Falck and many of her neighbours.

“Given what we know about trauma, given what we know about the hardships that everybody had had to endure for many, many weeks, I didn't feel like it was appropriate for people to see their homes and the ruins and rubble that is left of their lives and their properties for the first time on a bus with all of their neighbours and to everyone watch them grieve like they were some sort of zoo animal or in a fishbowl,” Falck said. “Like it just didn't feel like a humane or dignified way to treat any of us with tact whose lives had just been flipped upside down.”

According to Foster, the bus tours were specifically designed to recognize the difficulties evacuees were facing.

“These escorted bus tours were designed especially to recognize that it's very difficult for residents to see these areas. That is why there were counsellors on board the bus. They were also done in small groups,” Foster said. "It's always a balance between trying to help people have access to areas that are significantly burned. We know that residents want that right away… So small buses were used and there were also staff aboard each of those buses to be able to support residents as they were going through the area.”

The bus routes stuck primarily to public roads and did not travel down any driveways to view properties, a fact that frustrated many of the rural residents of Westside Road and Bear Creek Road.

“Everybody that had the offer of these escorted visits was told right up front that the buses were only able to go where it was safe to do so,” said Foster. “So, we did let the (Westside Road and Bear Creek) residents know that it was likely that they wouldn't be able to see their homes. Where possible on the bus, they had the option to see a digital photograph in some cases. Again, only if it had been safe for somebody to have gotten that photo previously. But that wasn't always the case. And this was happening while we were still in an evacuation order and they were making the neighbourhood safe.”

Foster said that the buses were intended to allow people to see if they had suffered a full loss, when safe to do so.

“The intention was that we were confirming with people when they had significant or partial loss of properties,” Foster said. “These were self-identified people that were coming through our website based on their address.”

However, according to some Westside Road and Bear Creek residents, the information regarding the condition of their property was occasionally incorrect and, for Jaclyn Falck, it was completely wrong.

When Falck was contacted by the district, she was told that her property had been marked as a total loss. However, through a hunting telescope she had been able to see that one of the two structures on her property was still intact.

“I expressed my concern at that point that I knew that one home was standing, the other was not,” Falck said. “My concern was that they were going to be calling someone else to tell them that their home was standing when it was indeed gone because they had mixed up ours.”

Imperfections aside, the escorted bus tours are just the start of the regional emergency program, said Foster.

The regional resiliency centre will be open to support residents with passport and driver’s license replacements and also to help with insurance and long-term accommodation needs.

"That's the....start of supporting residents and that will continue on now probably for the next year or so if White Rock Lake is any indication," Foster said. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Georgina Whitehouse or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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