Reflecting on the role that recreation services teams played during the wildfire season of 2017 in British Columbia was a difficult task. Every person I have met in the region had an interaction with recreation staff and facilities in some way. The generosity and selflessness demonstrated by strangers, friends, neighbours and people involved with recreation services, local governments and community organizations were overwhelming. Each task that they performed and every smile given was without hesitation. I believe that is what most Canadians would do, and in British Columbia, it is our nature to never hesitate when we see people in need.
The people in recreation services in Williams Lake and Prince George also exemplified this spirit, as they played a major support services role during the wildfire season. In recreation, we pull together different resources and use our networks and intimate knowledge of the community to curate wonderful experiences. We are masters of experience design. Those skills can also be highly useful during times of emergency. We know whom to call, when and for what resources. We know which facility can provide space and services, and whom to direct to complete which task. With over 90 communities in BC in varying states of emergency, alert and evacuation, we acted. We planned fast, adapted quickly, evaluated the results, adjusted the plans and then acted again.
In Williams Lake, the situation developed very rapidly. Smoke and flames from lightning strikes were visible immediately, and fear paralleled the sense of urgency. An outgoing flight was halted, and within minutes of the lightning being observed, the airport was evacuated. Passengers, crew and airport staff watched the flames and smoke spread along the runway behind the now empty airport building. From the Cariboo Memorial Recreation Centre I could see smoke billowing and flames leaping from where lightning had struck. My daughter was stranded at the airport. As I raced to get her, I could feel the tension rising exponentially within the voice of each person I encountered. Within two hours of the first lightning strike, the City of Williams Lake called staff together to open the Emergency Operations Center. Information was sparse. The smoke clouds above the flames continued to grow determinedly. It was evident that there was more than one fire, in more than one place, bordering our community. Emergency Alerts were issued and continued to be issued in the following days. News of the fires near Clinton, Ashcroft and 100 Mile House added to the pressure we felt in our Emergency Operations Center.
By that evening, RCMP Officers, Wildfire Crews, Fire Fighting Personnel, and all the related equipment to support them started to arrive in droves to fight the fire and provide support services. The rodeo grounds and curling rink parking lots were a sea of red and yellow vehicles, each bearing a logo from where it had come from. Soon the Military arrived. At one point there were over 300 military personnel housed in the Recreation Center; their tanks, trucks and off-road vehicles filled the parking lot. It seemed that everywhere I turned, there were people in uniform helping to save our community.
When the evacuation order was given, residents were directed south on Highway 97, the only open highway, onward to Prince George. Vehicles lined up to leave town in a smoky haze, for what would be a many hours procession out of town, through Little Fort onto Prince George. Some residents chose Kamloops, and further to Kelowna, but the majority flowed through to Prince George. Without services like restaurants and fuel stations open, our Emergency Operation Center had to figure out how to ensure support for the emergency response teams remaining in town. 700 rotating military personnel from three different troops stayed in the Cariboo Memorial Recreation Centre and were impressively self-reliant. Firefighters were fed in the curling rink, housed in vacated motels and hotels without cleaning services. Many of the RCMP ate rations. Staff from municipal departments used their community contacts, knowledge and history, assets and relationships in many different ways. Some local businesses, like the local Tim Hortons, tried to assist; succeeding because Emergency Service Personnel and volunteers helped behind the counter to prepare and serve food. Recreation facilities became critical spaces for service provision.
Recreation personnel from the City of Williams Lake supervised the reception centre for the City’s Emergency Operations Center. The need for timely information regarding the fire status inside of the city limits was paramount. With a background in customer service and personnel relations, the recreation centre staff, along with student workers from the grounds crew, plus two very dedicated volunteers worked with the EOC to provide communication needed through the Reception Centre. At one point there were six ringing phones, answered by 12 rotating staff for 12 hours per day.
Another recreation team served in the roles of Information Officer and Liaison Officer – roles well suited to the skills of recreation team members. They worked with the Regional District Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to organize incoming information and share it with other local governments, First Nations, the Provincial Government, and the many agencies and media all working together (some days for up to 20 hours in a row). Maps of the fire situation and the growth of the fires overnight were updated daily, and conference calls intended to share and retrieve knowledge were hosted several times per day.
The unrelenting stress of the situation, combined with the demanding volume and nature of the work forced teams to organize to combat fatigue. Recreation team members excel at scheduling, so they assisted to create rosters for work and rest, schedules for breaks and meals to help maintain the stamina of the teams working the Williams Lake EOC.
In Prince George, Community Services stepped up on short notice and performed some fantastic feats. On 12 hours’ notice, they hosted a 72-day event with 10,000+ attendees. As evacuated residents from Williams Lake arrived in Prince George in various states of upheaval and distress, a massive care system of Emergency Social Services (ESS) was building. Some of these evacuated residents had been on the road for 15 hours on what would normally have been a three-hour trip. They arrived worried, hungry, unsure and weary of what the future days held for them and their communities. The reception centre utilized an average of 360 volunteers a day to administer the ESS Reception Centre. Evacuees were directed to 900+ temporarily set up beds, and community boarding opportunities. Special arrangements were made for the over 200 health care and residential care patients coming from facilities in the evacuated region, in addition to women in stages of birth, weddings and even a funeral. Every need was assessed, and every possible attempt made to help and support everyone coming in.
Recreation services are excellent at connecting with people and creating community – a value and skill so deeply appreciated by the people evacuated to Prince George. Recreation Services is one of the few areas of government that has the unique relationships and skilled teams to pull off events of such scale, for 72 straight days. Once basic needs were met (at first on a short-term rotating schedule) a painful amount of time was left for people to worry about their home communities, friends and future lives. Free programs, sports, food discounts and entertainment opportunities were arranged to help fill the empty hours that evacuees experienced. Opportunities all over Prince George were created – events in local parks, discovery centres and open spaces were used for these pop-up activities. These experiences were particularly valuable for people who were “hosted” up to 60 days, continually negotiating extenuating circumstances before them. The situation kept all of the staff and volunteers involved in support services performing miracles on very short notice and repeating that on a very long cycle. Recreation personnel partnered with everyone to try everything to keep the hope growing in the face of adversity. The community came together to assist evacuees who needed opportunities for engagement and activities to keep themselves and their children from dwelling on the loss of control over their situation. This was a monumental task, and a constant treadmill of learning and adapting. The opportunities and activities that were provided gave the needed stress relief and filled a tremendous void.
When it came time to repatriate Williams Lake and the surrounding area and invite residents home, the Recreation Department shifted focus to providing recreation opportunities to help people cope with what they discovered upon return home. The smoke with thick and air quality was poor. The community had changed. Many people had endured the loss of social community, possessions, and lifestyles. The swimming pool in the Rec Center opened the lap pool; Thompson Rivers’ University shared their spaces for programming, as well as some of the school gymnasiums were opened up for “preschoolers & me” programs, seniors walking programs, and sports activities for children and youth. Recreation Services partnered with the University, School District 27 and other local individuals and organizations to host indoor activities for all ages. We encouraged our residents to engage with each other and to return to some sort of routine.
As I reflect on the remarkably different roles that the Williams Lake and Prince George recreation teams played in the Wildfire Season of 2017, the key take away for me is how well we plan, evaluate, adapt and plan again. We in recreation need to advocate for our skills and talents so that we are forefront in the minds of those directing and managing community emergency response. Recreation teams have a “can do” attitude, and an optimistic way of operating – finding other ways of meeting a challenge, another person or another process that will allow us to create positives for our communities. We have a unique lens. I feel very lucky to be in a profession that stands for the people, all people all the time, no matter the situation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stacy Miranda is the District of Mackenzie’s Recreation Centre Manager. She has held a variety of management positions in Fort St. John and Williams Lake for the past 25 years. Acting as the BCRPA Regional Liaison for the Cariboo, she loves to get outdoors and experience the myriad of recreational activities the area has to offer.