Wildfires have ripped through our beautiful Okanagan, and while the smoke and flames are now smouldering and clearing, my attention is going to how people were cared for during this time.
The volunteers who stepped up were phenomenal and part of the positive aspect of our community coming together, including The Salvation Army, Red Cross, Mama’s for Mama’s, Food Banks, as well as those serving at the Emergency Support Services centre at the Royal LePage Place Arena in West Kelowna.
In emails, phone calls and messages, I've had the opportunity to hear the stories of our fellow residents who were evacuated. Many are currently grappling with bureaucratic processes, trying to secure reimbursements. Their pleas and frustrations echo the sentiments of a community feeling left behind by the very system supposed to aid them.
It's also disheartening to learn that some residents never even made it through the queue, left standing in the lurch when assistance was most crucial. There were tens of thousands of residents displaced. And not all received support. I went to the ESS at Royal LePage Place to see the process firsthand, and the stories became even more tangible. Many evacuees I spoke with were on their third or fourth visit, having driven or hitched a ride all the way from Kelowna each time.
Imagine the distress of revisiting the same place, seeking help and having to go back time and again, without any resolution. Their repeated visits are a testament to a support system that has faltered under pressure.
While the flames were fierce, the aftermath reveals the clear inefficiencies and failures of the support system implemented by the provincial government. As one of the local MLAs, I have advocated for our constituents, believing there must be a mistake on understanding.
But Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma has confirmed reimbursements are not part of the program and will be individually examined. That is a significant issue for those who, out of their own initiative, paid for emergency accommodations.
Ma's suggestion that ESS scheme payments were for those with immediate financial constraints seems a cold comfort for many now struggling with reimbursement. There is no definition of “need”. There is no promise of help. If you didn’t make it through the queue, you won’t get any help. If you could sleep in your car, couch surf, separate your family into three groups at different friends’ homes, does this mean you did not “need” one of the open hotel rooms in Kelowna?
The wait times were days long to even figure out the answer to that question.
The root issue was failing software and an inefficient support system. And while constructing the airplane mid-flight, the queue system was invented with colours.
While I was at the ESS, a gentleman with the correct colour was told to come back in a few hours. So he came back, not once but twice that day – desperate for answers.
I am so grateful for the local leadership of the ESS that kept trying to optimize the system and work with the bureaucracy to optimize it, as well as the tireless volunteers who worked in impossible conditions with inadequate tools and systems.
Although the McDougall Creek wildfire presented an unprecedented challenge, the reactionary stance of the government is evident. The minister mentioned ongoing enhancements. That begged the question, why weren't those systems robust to begin with?
So how could the system have been improved?
I went through the Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003. I remember going to the ESS with the other 30,000 evacuees who were all evacuated in one night it seemed.
You showed your driver’s license, they checked your name off the master list. They gave you hotel vouchers, food vouchers and asked if you were able to pack a bag. They had donated clothes there if you required them, along with a registration system for contacting you. That was it.
Those few days of support allowed my family to get to safety, find accommodations and food, and figure out our next steps. We never had to go back to the ESS, despite being out of our home for weeks. I never spoke to a single evacuee during that fire who found the system difficult or overbearing. It can be that simple.
Our Okanagan community deserves better. The government must be held accountable for its oversight, ensure prompt reimbursement for all and revamp the ESS system to be more efficient and compassionate. We owe it to our residents and to all of B.C. residents to ensure they're never let down like this again.
My question to you is this:
What improvements would you make to the ESS system?
I love hearing from you and I read every email. Please email me at [email protected] or call the office at 250-712-3620.
Renee Merrifield is the BC United MLA for Kelowna-Mission.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.