City offers shelter for displaced Cariboo residents

Prince George has become a safe haven for people fleeing the smoke and flames that are ravaging the central and southern Interior regions.

The city has responded by providing food, shelter, health services and a friendly welcome to a growing number of displaced people affected by the crisis, which took hold of the province Friday when lightning strikes touched off fires which continue to burn out of control near Quesnel, Williams Lake, 100 Mile House, Cache Creek, Ashcroft and Princeton.

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"It is unprecedented, it's something we haven't faced," Mayor Lyn Hall said. "We're very focused on the job at hand and what we need to do as an emergency operations centre and what services we need to provide. It can be an ever-changing situation and it depends on what happens in the Cariboo. 

"There's always something different that comes along with the needs of each one of the evacuees that we see. In a significant operation like this it requires services from every facet of our community, not just accommodation or meals but health care, pharmaceuticals and social services. You sometimes don't realize the magnitude of the services that are needed to be deployed."

City staff and volunteers at the College of New Caledonia set up 150 cots at the first evacuation centre at the CNC gymnasium and 88 people slept there Saturday night. Another 190 portable beds are available at the Charles Jago Northern Sport Centre at UNBC and a third location has been arranged in case the crush of people gets too much for the two other shelters to handle. Meals in the CNC cafeteria and food vouchers are also available but evacuees must resister at CNC to become eligible for those services. The registry will be used to help people locate their friends or relatives or to help emergency personnel connect people with their property at home.

"(On Saturday) I ran into a couple who came up from the regional district around Williams Lake and they had family that had gone through the Fort McMurray fire and out here they are here looking for services," said Hall. "I sat and talked to them for a bit and it's very emotional. They have a dog and they needed some reassurance that the dog would be taken care of.

"Then you go inside to the registration area and there was a mom and dad with three children and the mom quite honestly couldn't take it anymore. You're seeing lives change. They know what they left but they're not sure what they're coming home to. They're very anxious and want to know  what's going on at home but they also understand the firefighters have a job to do." 

Local businesses have responded. Pacific Western Brewery supplied caseloads of bottled water, Save-on-Foods managers came by the shelter with diapers, toiletries, water and snacks, Wal-Mart is making food donations, Moxies and Rockford Grill have offered serving staff to help with the meals and the Salvation Army and Red Cross have rounded up volunteers for the evacuation centres.  

Instead of food and clothing donations from the public, which can hamper operations at the shelters, the city is encouraging people who want to donate to give money to the British Columbia Fires Appeal through the Canadian Red Cross.

Todd Doherty traded in his Member of Parliament for Cariboo-Prince George designation and has been volunteering his services at the evacuation centre at CNC since it opened Saturday morning, helping city staff coordinate their operations. 

Doherty had 22 years of experience in the aviation industry before he ran for politics and is a past manager of the Prince George Airport, where crisis management comes with the job, skills that are now coming in handy.

"You prepare all the time for worst-case scenarios but this is an event that's bigger than anything we've seen before," Doherty said. "We've had overwhelming support from the community that's coming out while we're waiting for the evacuees that are coming. We know that over 7,000 people have been evacuated and we haven't seen those numbers, but this in an incident that's not going be done overnight and we have to prepare.

"It's coordinating with the various agencies, it's making sure that the regional, municipal and provincial leadership knows what's going on and making sure our guests are here and that we can direct them to the services they need and make sure they're taken care of when they're here. I can't say enough about the city teams that are here and the volunteers, it's been great."

Doherty and his wife Kelly are from Williams Lake, where his mother Pam lives, and she and her partner Dave were evacuated Friday from their home on the south end of the city near the Sugarcane reserve. 

"They were given minutes to evacuate and were escorted through flames," he said. "The fire is unprecedented, it's moving so fast. With the wind and the hot dry weather we've had the last couple weeks, were tinderbox dry and we're telling people to heed every emergency alert or order. You can replace property and replace objects but you can't replace people.

"We had people from here from the same area, the Williams Lake Indian band, and all they had literally were the clothes on their back. When people are forced to leave you're seeing a wide range of emotions. Some people are so thankful to be here and people who want to know if their property is safe or if their animals are safe. It's so volatile right now."

Katherine Tkachuk came to the evacuation centre Sunday morning to offer evacuees a place in her residential neighbourhood where they could park their trailers and get away from the concrete environment of the CNC parking lot for as long as they need to stay in the city.

"The news is devastating and I was just wondering if there was anything that us citizens could do in town, even if we can just  offer our front yard and they can plug their travel trailer into our home or even if I could help volunteer to prepare food," said Tkachuk. "Driving through here I see people sitting in their vans with their pets and things like that and I just wanted to let them know that we're here.

"You never know, it could happen to us at any moment. No one thought it would happen to Fort McMurray."

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