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North Westside residents angry at lack of communication from fire officials

Some of the destruction caused by the White Rock Lake wildfire in the North Westside community
August 26, 2021 - 8:00 AM

Central Okanagan Regional District chair Gail Given heard residents concerns about a lack of communications and said a media tour of a devastated Westside neighbourhood was the only way to communicate with evacuees.

“Media coverage has been spotty and, on occasion, erroneous," she said as she opened the Regional District of Central Okanagan board meeting Monday evening, Aug. 23.

She acknowledged that she had talked to a number of people who had been evacuated about their concerns over the media getting to tour there while they still didn’t know for sure what had happened to their own homes.

There were about 80 homes destroyed in the area from Ewings Landing to Killiney Beach. Some of those who were burned out got to tour that area on Monday.

“I know some folks are very concerned and upset because the next group of people will be media,” Given said. “But this is because, with 1,400 residents out of their area, we can’t get permission to allow that many people back into that area so our best way to communicate with residents is to make sure the media can communicate that message.”

Residents whose homes were apparently not damaged were upset that there had been no direct communication with them.

“Residents who tragically lost their homes have been contacted and they should be first priority throughout this disaster,” Val Trevis, a Westshore Estates resident, wrote in an email. “However, the rest of the more than 1,000 evacuees remain in the dark with respect to our neighbourhoods. For 22 days now, we have not received one single update for our respective neighbourhoods. We are worried and waiting.”

Wayne Carson, the regional district director for Central Okanagan West who represents those evacuees, is also evacuated from his home in Killiney Beach and understands that residents can’t be allowed back in until B.C. Wildfire declares it’s safe.

“I’ve talked to so many of my residents and I do not support this media tour,” Carson said at the Monday board meeting before the media tour on Tuesday. “My community... they’re devastated by this. In the past, if the media wanted to do tours of fires – when I was involved in fires – they went out and rented helicopters and flew over. They took their pictures and did their reports and didn’t interfere with people.”

Carson is a former chief of North Westside Fire Rescue that battled the fire, along with support from other fire departments in the region. Carson said he faced wildfires twice in the days when he was chief.

READ MORE: 'Anything that could be and would be saved, was saved:' North Westside fire chief says

Carson noted that fire trucks were used to escort the buses carrying the people whose homes had been destroyed. That was necessary because they needed to see the destruction for themselves to come to terms with it and to take photos for insurance purposes. But, he said, those trucks needed to return to active duty rather than escorting the media.

Westshore Estates resident Trevis, in her email, included a copy of a letter she sent to the regional district.

“The time and resources should not be focused on media parading through our neighbourhoods showcasing what still remains around people’s homes,” she wrote. “We all know we are extraordinarily vulnerable to looting and we will be even more so once our neighbourhood images hit the news.”

The tour did, in fact, start at Westshore Estates where the media were briefed but photo opportunities were not provided until they drove into the area where the homes had been destroyed.

READ MORE: iN PHOTOS: The devastation left behind by the White Rock Lake wildfire near Vernon

The Central Okanagan emergency operations centre is holding a virtual information session Thursday, Aug. 26, for residents and owners of properties under evacuation order due to the White Rock Lake wildfire. Officials will answer questions submitted online. The public at large can also attend.

Residents can submit questions online here until noon today, Aug. 26.

The public information session is from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Aug. 26 via the regional district's YouTube channel here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 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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