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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.