Behind Vernon's emergency wildfire evacuation efforts - InfoNews.ca

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Behind Vernon's emergency wildfire evacuation efforts

Signs throughout the city direct evacuees to the reception centre at the Dogwood Gym in the Vernon Recreation Centre (3310 37 Avenue).
July 20, 2017 - 2:30 PM

“WE’RE PREPARING FOR THE WORST, HOPING FOR THE BEST”

VERNON - You can hear the fatigue in Luana Kaleikini’s voice after one hell of a first week on the job.

Kaleikini was hired July 10 as Vernon’s emergency program and emergency support services coordinator, putting her at the helm of the City’s evacuation response efforts. 

“It’s been crazy, but it’s been wonderful to see the response from the community,” Kaleikini says.

Her week started with the July 10 condo fire at Arbor Lee apartments, in which Emergency Social Services snapped into action to provide shelter, food and clothing for displaced families.

Just a couple days later, the City activated a reception centre where B.C. wildfire evacuees could connect with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Service Canada, and other support agencies. So far, more than 600 evacuees have registered and Kaleikini says none of it would be possible without their volunteers.

Reception Centre volunteer Virginia Lange at the meet and greet station of Vernon's evacuee reception centre.
Reception Centre volunteer Virginia Lange at the meet and greet station of Vernon's evacuee reception centre.
Image Credit: City of Vernon

“I’d estimate there were 25 ESS volunteers existing when I took on the program July 10. Since then, they (city) has had over 150 volunteers that have been vetted and cleared to work at the reception centre. The process was lightning speed, I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s a lot of people and a lot of paperwork.”

In addition to establishing the reception centre, Emergency Social Services has also set up roughly 450 beds at the Civic Arena and the Vernon Curling Rink, although they have not been needed — yet.

“When you work in disaster response, your crystal ball is broken,” Kaleikini says. “We’re preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.”

Most evacuees are being billeted by friends or family, but strangers are opening their doors as well.

“We have some white boards where people can post what they have available and evacuees can get in touch with them,” she says.

More than 400 beds were set up as emergency lodging for evacuees in Vernon.
More than 400 beds were set up as emergency lodging for evacuees in Vernon.
Image Credit: City of Vernon

The white boards are crammed with offerings of accommodation for people and pets, as well as free activities for families.

Kaleikini says volunteers have been going above and beyond, including one who travelled to Kamloops to pick up an evacuee’s forgotten insulin medication.

“He (evacuee) was really appreciative,” she says. “That’s one of the many stories. I’m sure the volunteers have mountains of them.”

Interested volunteers are asked to email ESSvolunteer@vernon.ca with a completed volunteer form available on the homepage of the City’s website, or pick up a volunteer package at City Hall. Due to the overwhelming number of volunteer applications, you may not hear back immediately. Be patient.

Donations for evacuees are being accepted by the Salvation Army House of Hope (3303 32 Avenue, located behind Staples). All donations (including clothing, food and money) should be dropped off to this location from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. You’re asked to specify that the donation is for fire relief when dropping off items to ensure they are directed toward evacuees. The Salvation Army cannot accept any food items not prepared in a commercial kitchen that has Food Safe designation.

There's been an outpouring of support from the Vernon community, as seen on this whiteboard of messages for evacuees.
There's been an outpouring of support from the Vernon community, as seen on this whiteboard of messages for evacuees.

The ESS reception centre is located the Dogwood Gym in the Vernon Recreation Centre (3310 37 Avenue) and is operational from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Evacuees arriving after hours can call 250-309-0638.

RCMP victim services are also onsite to assist evacuees with stress and trauma.

“We’ve seen a lot of that (stress). It’s to be expected. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” Kaleikini says.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 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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