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First Person - Hoping for the best… Preparing for the worst

Clare Fletcher helped direct emergency services during the fires and floods of 2003, and is now preparing for the future

For British Columbians, 2003 is a year for the record books.

For much of the summer, wildfires raged in the Interior of the province, leading to the emergency evacuation of more than 50,000 people from their homes. More than 300 homes and businesses were destroyed, and the total cost to the province is expected to be more than half a billion dollars.

In mid October, a record rainfall hit the Sea to Sky corridor, causing four deaths and the destruction of dozens of homes. Some 17 families, mostly from the Mount Currie area, remained evacuated from their homes through Christmas.

During the fires and flooding, trained Emergency Social Services volunteers worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help manage orderly evacuations and provide services for evacuees. Once the disasters subsided, the ESS workers started the recovery effort to help victims to rebuild their lives.

Clare Fletcher, Whistler’s Emergency Social Services director, was on the frontlines in both the Interior and in Pemberton, helping to co-ordinate services for victims during some of the largest disaster relief efforts in provincial history.

Important lessons were learned, says Fletcher, that will enable ESS workers and volunteers to respond even better to future disasters. Among other things, the disasters illustrated the need for trained volunteers and for more co-ordination between governments, ESS groups, and non-government organizations, she said.

A community’s greatest asset in an emergency is its people, said Fletcher, and everywhere she went she was impressed by the way communities pulled together. Volunteerism, Fletcher notes, is not dead.

Fletcher has served as Whistler’s ESS director since 1993 and she is rewriting the plan for 2004 to incorporate new government emergency response systems and the lessons learned from experience. At the same time, Fletcher hopes to quadruple the number of trained ESS volunteers in the community.

Our ability to face a disaster, says Fletcher, will ultimately depend on how well we prepare for it. ESS provides short-term relief for evacuees for 72 hours, or more if a case demands it, including food, clothing, lodging and other services.

In addition to working for the RMOW, Fletcher is also spending time in her home community of Pemberton, working as the Pemberton Disaster Recovery Co-ordinator at the temporary Disaster Recovery Centre.

Between the two positions, 12 hours is a short day says Fletcher, but she’s used to these situations. In her ESS career, she has been involved in eight natural disasters, including three fires and one flood in 2003.

Pique Newsmagazine sat down with Clare Fletcher to discuss the role ESS plays in a community, her experiences this year, and her vision for the future.

Pique

: How did you first get involved with Emergency Social Services?

CF

: I was working as the administrative assistant to the fire department in 1992 and typed the emergency social services plan for the first director. The director retired and the position was vacant. So I volunteered. Since then I’ve been working with the municipality, developing a team and training ESS volunteers.

I’ve been involved in relief efforts around the province since 1990.

Pique

: You’ve worked outside Whistler a number of times with the Provincial Emergency Program. How did that come about?

CF

: That first happened with the fires in Salmon Arm in 1998. I was recruited by the province to go up to assist I worked at the headquarters as a food co-ordinator. It was the first disaster recovery headquarters for the province at the time.

When I got back I helped to put together a Mobile Support Team for the Lower Mainland. The team is a group of highly-trained directors, such as myself, and one of our mandates is to work with the province and to go wherever we are required.

We’re cross-trained to go into a community and assist where needed. We are also prepared to go into communities that don’t have emergency plans in place to assist the development of those plans as well.

We’re the Southwest Team, and there are five teams in the province. In Whistler the work has been ongoing with our local team, and we’ve been training municipal staff as well.

Pique

: Did all of this develop in response to disasters around the province, and do most towns have plans in place?

CF

: Every municipality is mandated by the Provincial Emergency Plan to have a plan that will look after that municipality as far as its structures go, and for looking after the care of the people.

The RMOW has planned to develop their emergency plan in 2004. The Whistler ESS team will also be redeveloping their plan in 2004.

Pique

: Where does Whistler’s ESS team currently stand?

CF

: It’s a good team. I’ve also been able to help co-ordinate and develop a team for Pemberton. As a trainer for the Justice Institute of B.C., I look after the training of local ESS volunteers.

For 2004, ESS will be looking for new recruits and begin developing a new plan to go with the new provincial structure, the BCERMS (British Columbia Emergency Response Management System) model. I’ve been working on a plan for the past two years towards this. Hopefully all provincial ESS groups will be using this model soon, which will be great because everyone will be working from the same model for first responders.

The team we had in place in the corridor was very helpful for the Pemberton flood. Teams from Whistler were able to work with the teams in Pemberton because we were using the same system. We didn’t have to figure everything out, it was just a matter of implementing the training.

Pique

: Were the teams and plans that were in place in the Interior and Pemberton up to the huge challenge, or was it a learning process?

CF

: There were a number of lessons learned in the Interior and Pemberton. In disaster management, you have to learn from disasters, and sometimes what seems to work in theory on paper doesn’t work as well when you’re on the ground. You have to be a little flexible and creative sometimes, as long as the foundation is solid.

On the job is where you truly learn what works, and we are always reviewing our plans. An emergency plan is a living document, which we are constantly revising.

Pique

: What’s the commitment to be a volunteer with ESS?

CF

: We provide all the training at no cost. It’s five days of training initially, and ongoing training and exercises throughout the year.

In Whistler we did something unique. We were the first ESS team to execute a group lodging exercise to the magnitude that we set up a group lodging centre with food and support, and slept in the high school overnight. We wanted to see what it was like and how it felt to be in that situation. It was a great help to us through the summer with all the evacuations because it enabled us to know how it should be done and prepare for it.

Pique

: You had a pretty busy summer with all of the fires in the province. What was your involvement in the different disasters?

CF

: This summer I started out by going to Kamloops for two weeks. I was recruited by the province as part of the Southwest Mobile Support Team.

I was the team leader, and the team supported the local Kamloops team at the reception centre for the Kamloops and Barriere wildfires. Later I was the Operations Section Chief for the centre.

Pique

: Obviously the fires were pretty big and out of control at one point, and Barriere was pretty much destroyed. What was that experience like, working with so many people who had lost so much?

CF

: We registered over 6,000 evacuees in two days. I remember on my first night there, the fire was still burning on the other side of the river from the reception area. I was also able to go up to Barriere to work in the recovery centre.

I think I had a mental image of what to expect up there, and seeing it just verified that for me. The damage was very intense, and it had a huge affect on people. Not just the victims, people who lost their homes, but the people around them as well.

I came back (to Pemberton) for about a week and then the Kelowna fires broke out. I coordinated a team at the province’s request, to go and assist with the Kelowna ESS team. We ran one of the reception centres for the evening shift.

That team included Sheila Mozes, Roger Wheetman, and Lynn Turberfield from Whistler, and from Squamish Beryl Taylor and Merrylee Lightburn.

I was there for three days when I was recruited for the Cranbrook area for a week to assist the local ESS directors there in planning and training in the event they had to evacuate the community.

One of the rewards in doing what I do is having the opportunity to work with so many caring and talented people.

Pique

: The Cranbrook fire was probably the biggest success of the summer for fire crews that managed to turn the fires back. Did that have anything to do with the experience gained earlier in the summer?

CF

: ESS doesn’t have anything to do with the actual firefighting, but I can honestly say in disasters we’re constantly learning from what’s happened before. When I went to the Cranbrook area, I had the lessons I learned in Kamloops, in Barriere, in Kelowna.

These were fabulous communities with great resources – the people, their recreation centres, their community spirit.

The (Resort Municipality of Whistler) was really supportive throughout all of this. They continued to pay my wage while I went away to these different towns. They also paid municipal staff to assist Pemberton in the flood, looking on it as a learning opportunity and training experience.

Pique

: When the flooding hit, did that experience come in handy?

CF

: Actually, when the flood hit I was at my oldest son’s wedding in Salmon Arm.

We got a knock on the door at five o’clock on the morning of the wedding and we were told that our house was going to be flooded. We made the decision to stay for the wedding, because it was our son’s day, and left the following morning.

When we got home there was three to four feet of water in the yard and in the crawlspace. We were already prepared with a pump and a generator, and my husband pumped out our basement. Then we went to work in the flood response effort.

I’m fortunate that my whole family volunteers in our community. We’ve learned to be very prepared and very realistic.

Even so, seeing the devastation to the community was difficult.

That said, the people of Pemberton were very supportive and very caring, and volunteered to help those in need in our community. The entire community worked together so selflessly. That to me is the memory I’d like to keep of the flood..

Pique

: Generally speaking, how prepared are people for emergencies? Could they be doing better?

CF

: Definitely. People think these things are never going to happen to them, and hopefully it doesn’t, but if you’re prepared, have a plan, have supplies, your family is going to recover much quicker. The same thing happens when you have trained ESS volunteers in your community – you can provide service to people who need it a lot faster.

In Pemberton we had more than 175 volunteers come forward. They were filling sandbags, doing traffic control, cooking in kitchens, doing ESS paperwork, typing, delivering food, and handing out food and clothes. The number of jobs done by those volunteers were greatly appreciated, and helped things to go much quicker.

Pique

: Was the level of support as high in the Interior?

CF

: It was very gratifying to see so many people come forward to help their neighbours. But again, if they had more people trained in ESS functions in those communities, there would have been an easier delivery of services to evacuees.

For next year we will be actively recruiting more local volunteers, in Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and Mount Currie, and give them the chance to take training, and ultimately build stronger teams.

Pique

: What does ESS training consist of?

CF

: We have a number of different courses on what goes into operating a reception centre and group lodging centre in a disaster. It’s five days, but people can take a three day training course, and take other courses on the side. We have 10 courses in total.

Pique

: How supportive is the provincial government of emergency management efforts?

CF

: The Province has always taken this very seriously, and they’ve always been very concerned and had a high level of awareness of disasters.

The disasters brought it to the forefront of everyone’s attention, and I think people are now more aware of what’s possible, and that these things do happen. Hopefully with that awareness municipalities will endeavour to develop stronger plans, and to exercise those plans as well.

Pique

: You mentioned earlier that you learned some lessons from the fire and floods. What are some examples?

CF

: First of all, I learned the importance of communication; communicating with evacuees and developing a relationship with the media. In Pemberton, I think that (Mayor) Elinor Warner, Susie Gimse from the regional district, and Chief Andrews from Mount Currie did a fabulous job, getting as much info out to the public as they could about what was happening.

Another lesson is the importance of having good volunteer management, which is something (Whistler ESS volunteer) Sheila Mozes worked on in Kelowna. It was put to good use in Pemberton, and it’s something we want to focus on for Whistler as well. It means shorter days for volunteers, and shifting people to different jobs so they don’t get as tired.

We also realized the need for a recovery centre, which was something first used in Barriere. We still have an active recovery centre in Pemberton. The goal is to provide ongoing support for evacuees and people that have lost their homes, to help them get back on their feet. It’s something new, and it’s something that Whistler will incorporate in its emergency plan.

In Pemberton the centre has the Canadian Red Cross, the Mennonites who went out to help with repairs and the cleanup, the Salvation Army, and ADRA (the Seven Day Adventists). We provide used clothing, goods, appliances, furniture and counselling.

Not many people realize it, but there are still 17 families in Pemberton that are away from their homes. We were delighted to see five families went home over Christmas, but there are still people in need. With the help of the Pemberton Food Bank, volunteers put together 38 Christmas hampers for families affected by the flood.

The province is going to be supporting those families until the end of January, and as needed thereafter.

We also learned in was important to have volunteers that are cross-trained. We found it was very important because we are better able to utilize them where needed. In Pemberton, we brought in a shorter work period, which was very successful. When people are trained to do only one function, you have a handful of people working longer hours at those jobs and there is a concern that you can burn out.

Pique

: How big is the Whistler ESS team, and how many more do we need?

CF

: Right now we have about 40 community ESS volunteers. I’d like to see about 150.

In Kamloops we had 100 to 150 volunteers working in the reception centre at any one time, times three shifts because we’re open 24 hours. They had a list of more than 600 volunteers, and they used every one of them they could contact. That was an important lesson for me.

In Pemberton we will be contacting our walk-in centre volunteers and offer the ESS training to all those that wish to be on the team.

One of our goals for 2004 is to hopefully create an ESS team for Mount Currie, as there is an interest.

Pique

: I guess volunteerism isn’t dead after all.

CF

: That’s something we want to get across. There was no shortage of volunteers stepping forward to help out. What we’d like to see happen now is for people to volunteer now and take the training before something happens. In the new year we’ll be taking out ads and getting the word out that we’re looking for volunteers, and providing free ESS training in the Sea to Sky corridor.

Pique

: Is there a place that people can get in touch with you now if they’re interested in volunteering or want to learn more about ESS?

CF

: People can call 604-935-8161 if they want to volunteer.

Pique

: Thanks for your time.

CF

: Thank you.



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