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Preparing for the worst

Emergency Social Services taskforce urges preparedness, recruits for local ESS response team

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Whistler might have gotten lucky last year.

Despite tinder dry conditions and a long drought that resulted in widespread backcountry closures and work stoppages around the Whistler area, only a few small fires broke out. These were quickly contained by Whistler Fire Service regulars and volunteers, who spent weeks on high alert.

The Interior of the province was not as fortunate, as a series of wildfires destroyed over 330 homes, and a couple of businesses, with damages estimated in the $700 million range.

The fall floods that devastated areas of Pemberton and Squamish, causing four fatalities, didn’t impact on Whistler nearly as much, although residents living alongside rivers were prepared with sandbags.

With meteorologists predicting similar dry conditions this summer and the West Coast at greater risk of extreme weather events like last year’s record rainstorm, Whistler’s Emergency Social Services team is working to ensure that Whistler is prepared for anything.

May 2 to 8 is Emergency Preparedness Week in Canada, and ESS is marking the occasion with an open house in Nesters Square this Saturday, May 8, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. People stopping by the booth will be able to access information to help them plan for natural disasters and evacuations, including guides on putting together home emergency kits and safeguarding your home against fires.

In addition, volunteers at the booth will be promoting ESS’s current drive to train at least 100 Whistler residents to staff an ESS Emergency Reception Centre in a time of crisis.

"One thing I really recognized in the responses we did last summer is the value of trained volunteers," said Clare Fletcher, the ESS director for Whistler. She helped co-ordinate evacuation and relief efforts in the Interior last summer, where tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes. She also co-ordinated the creation an emergency reception centre in Pemberton in the days following the flooding, providing short-term and long-term services to people who were impacted.

She hopes to use the experiences she gained last summer to build a network of trained volunteers to deliver faster, more responsive disaster relief in Whistler.

"It takes a lot of people. In the Kamloops area during the wildfires we had over a thousand walk-in volunteers, and every one of them was utilized in the three weeks we were active there," Fletcher said.

"At the beginning we were so busy training the volunteers, the strain it created was almost a disaster in itself.

"We have a lot of talented, educated people in Whistler, and we want to use those talents. A little training, a one-day course, is all it takes to become an effective volunteer."

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