Jil Freeman, who has organized food banks throughout the South Cariboo, holds up a sign with messages from residents of Fort McMurray who have banded together to ship food to those in need. Now local governments are co-ordinating with Fort McMurray officials to bring residents home. Submitted photo.

UNDER EVACUATION: 100 Mile seeks advice from Fort McMurray

100 Mile House prepares its re-entry plan as the closest to return in Cariboo

As 100 Mile House prepares a re-entry plan for local residents, officials are taking advice from officials behind the Fort McMurray re-entry just more than a year ago.

“What we’ve done is we’re using some of their re-entry and … we are learning from some of the stuff they’ve done and what worked, what doesn’t work in re-entry,” says 100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall.

“So yeah, we’re kind of following some of their guidelines – a good portion of them.”

Jordan Redshaw, the communications manager for the recovery task force for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (the district that includes Fort McMurray), says that while the official lessons learned have not been released by the municipality, they are “open to sharing everything with municipalities in B.C. as it goes through this challenging time.”

100 Mile House Emergency Operations Centre planner, Joanne Doddridge, says that representatives of Fort McMurray provided “recommendations, practices and key planning tools to help us start to focus our own efforts on re-entry.”

Both Redshaw and Campsall stress that the situations faced by re-entry into Fort McMurray and what the Cariboo will face, while generally similar, have their own peculiarities.

“We adapted these tools to our own situation here in 100 Mile House which helped us understand the myriad of factors to consider in preparing for a safe return for residents,” says Doddridge.

RELATED: Officials working out logistics for return to South Cariboo

In Fort McMurray, close to 90,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the city and surrounding areas, many receiving little notice. The community also lost 1,958 structures in the fire, many in neighbourhoods within the city boundaries. Evacuees were also unable to return to their homes for a month following the wildfire.

To date, in the Cariboo Regional District (CRD), approximately 35,116 people have been impacted by evacuation orders and alerts over an area about 24,000 sq. km. While neither the City of Williams Lake nor the District of 100 Mile House have lost structures to date, surrounding areas have seen at least 41 structures lost with more expected to be announced.

In Fort McMurray, re-entry was phased over a substantial period of time.

The Journey Home to Fort McMurray

As re-entry into Fort McMurray continues, thank you to all those who worked so hard to make it safe.

Posted by Rachel Notley on Monday, June 6, 2016

“The intent of that was to offset the amount of stress on the information centres as well as capacity for if people were to return home, because we’re so isolated up here, and find that they weren’t able to stay in their homes, that the hotel accommodation would be able to absorb that additional population,” says Redshaw.

“And to make sure that through that period we also weren’t over-stressing the amount of traffic on the highway.”

The process was spread over the first four days of June, 2016.

“The intent was to mitigate a lot of those safety factors to offset the impact on residents as they returned so they could have as smooth a transition as possible,” says Redshaw.

Three communities were deemed “unsafe to live in” by the chief medical officer of health because of the amount of damage in the area, says Redshaw, so re-entry in those communities took longer because of the clean up needed to be done. Re-entry there began towards the end of August.

Before re-entry could happen, however, Alberta’s premier established five conditions to be met:

  • Wildfire is no longer an imminent threat to the community.
  • Critical infrastructure is repaired to provide basic service
  • Essential services, such as fire, EMS, police and healthcare are restored.
  • Hazardous areas are secure (100 truckloads of fencing was sent to Fort McMurray)
  • Local government is re-established

Redshaw also says that enough critical businesses such as gas stations, banks and grocery stores were in place to support a residential population.

“It was new for all of us,” says Redshaw. “Every piece that we were encountering along the way in a disaster to this magnitude was new to a certain extent.”

RELATED: CRD and 100 Mile begin evaluating safe return for evacuated residents

He says one of the big things they learned was communicating with residents.

“Being open and transparent with them about what’s going on and what’s happening and making sure that you are listening to residents in terms of their needs and what their current challenges are.”

Another challenge he says was working with various levels of government in determining which responsibilities belonged to whom.

In the Cariboo, the CRD, the City of Williams Lake, the District of 100 Mile House and local First Nations governments are working together to co-ordinate the re-entry process. To date, 100 Mile House is the community closest to having essential services in place for a return.

“One of the big things that we’ve learned through this is that the challenges are going to be unique to every particular area,” Redshaw says. “One of the biggest and most important things is that everyone has and experiences an event like this in a unique manner. There are no two stories that are ever going to be the same.”

In the Cariboo, for example, the 108 Mile Ranch area lost power for several days following the evacuation order, while 100 Mile House and Williams Lake remain with electricity. Dealing with fridges will be one hurdle the regional district will have to overcome in bringing people home.

In Fort McMurray, the Insurance Bureau of Canada hired a contractor to pick up fridges that home owners were instructed to leave on their lawn. Over 11,000 fridges and freezers were collected in a short period of time in order to keep a new issue — wildlife finding containers of food all over — from happening.

Other differences can come down to the type of insurance a homeowner has, the damage to their property, to the age and stage of life an individual is in, to the type of evacuation procedure they faced.

“It is going to take individuals different amounts of time, and recovery will be different for every single person who was impacted by this, so acknowledging that right from the get go is certainly beneficial to being able to understanding the length of time it is going to take but also how each individual is impacted as a whole and the emotional experiences that they are going through for recovery.”

Redshaw also stresses seeking mental health support.

“Collectively communities need to look out for residents and the communities need to look out for one another and really look to support each other through a really trying time.

But again, even for those who have lost versus those who may not have lost everyone is going to be going through their own cycle of experience to that and their emotional response to everything that has happened to them.

I think that the biggest thing over all is to make sure to reach out for mental health support. I can’t stress that enough in terms of the impact that has,” he says.

RELATED: The health impacts on evacuees

“The mental health support is arguably the biggest piece of what will be forthcoming in the long run. Losing property is always tough and managing grief and loss can be quite challenging. There is a lot of emotional impact that comes from that and often times, it’s hard for us to recognize that in ourselves, so getting the mental health support we need — that everyone needs — and making sure that you’re supporting one another and your neighbours throughout this very trying time is really critical.”

According to 100 Mile Mayor Mitch Campsall, while re-entry is not expected immediately, it’s a whole lot closer.

“We are working really hard and the light is getting a lot brighter — to put it that way — at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

“It’s very close.”

A press release put out by the CRD says that individuals are in the process of arriving for providing essential services to the area.

“We are doing everything we can to get this going,” says Campsall. “We need people home and we’re not slowing anything down. We are making sure that when people come home, they’re safe and that’s our key.”

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