Local realtors join housing search for fire victims 

Community outpouring strains social services in immediate aftermath

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More than 100 bags of donations — winter boots, hats, jackets and more — have come flooding in for the Alpine House fire victims, and the community support continues this week as RE/MAX Sea to Sky works to pair the homeless with any empty suites in town.

It has been called an "overwhelming" show of support in the immediate aftermath of the Nov. 10 fire, which gutted half a condo complex in Alpine, forcing the evacuation of the entire building, leaving dozens homeless for the long term, desperately scrambling in one of the worst months of the year to find rental housing in Whistler.

The emergency has also been eye opening in terms of how Whistler copes in crisis, and the wheels are now in motion to update a protocol document for dealing with large-scale emergency events like this in the future.

"It created a big challenge for us," said Cheryl Skribe, executive director of Whistler Community Services Society, of the onslaught of donations at the Re-Use-It Centre, which was unable to cope with the sheer volume.

"Those donations came in and there was an expectation that we were supposed to manage it and the expectation came from the community.

"The community stepped up. We just need to be able to manage and direct that energy in a usable form for the victims."

Key players met this week to discuss the response.

From the municipality's point of view, via email from the communications department, "It's too early to share any lessons learned from the ESS (Emergency Social Services) activation last week."

Watermark Communications president Sue Eckersley, who was staging Cornucopia out of the Whistler Conference Centre at the time, stepped up to the challenge in the wake of the fire. She rallied her volunteers and set up a mini-version of the Re-Use-It Centre for fire-specific donations, and they came flooding in with local people desperate to help out.

"We were just in the right place at the right time to help and it was the right thing to do," said Eckersley.

There are always "lessons learned" after events like these, she added.

"Overall the lesson is: What an amazing community, what amazing organizations we have in place."

When the fire victims walked into the conference centre and saw the donations, Eckersley said they could feel the community love.

"To see Ballroom A full of stuff, to watch the homeowners and the people renting places in Alpine walk into that place, and whether it was necessarily the right stuff and the most targeted stuff of what they needed... they walked into that room and it was like 'we're loved, we're cared about, and we're not alone in this,'" said Eckersley. "And I think that was such a critical piece... and it hasn't ended either."

Eckersley has helped create a master housing list of the displaced victims. All were offered rooms at the Hilton until Dec. 18, long past the three-day emergency time period offered by Emergency Social Services, and another example of a company rising to the occasion.

Ten separate groups are on that home-finding list. It includes information on their pets, their budget, their children, and the number of rooms they need.

RE/MAX manager Stefanie Hostetter said the local real estate agents have good insight into potentially vacant suites and homes. They will be asking agents to reach out to clients for any potential leads.

"I don't think it's going to be easy but I do think with all the people in the real estate community.... We have access to more resources," said Hostetter.

Once they can find people homes and get them settled, then the community can start to help with finding more permanent things for the victims, some of whom lost everything in the fast-burning fire.

"Hopefully, (we can) keep the momentum going," Hostetter added of the inevitable need in the coming weeks for furniture, kitchen supplies, bedding and so on.

Those with places available can call RE/MAX and potentially be paired with an Alpine tenant. Call RE/MAX at 604-932-2300 or email firehousing@watermarkinc.ca.

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