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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."

Whistler’s ESS Reception Centre will have to run 24 hours a day, and will require people to fill a wide range of positions, from management and administration to first aid and emotional support.

There are four main departments.

Operations include the day-to-day operation of the centre, from reception and registration to the provision of childcare, blankets, and transportation.

Planning assesses the situation, handling the documentation while anticipating the needs of clients. Logistics deals with the whole supply chain, managing food, water, clothing and other goods during the crisis. The Planning group also handles information and communication for the centre.

The Finance group tracks costs and time, procures supplies and handles compensation and claims for the centre. In the Interior last summer some of the evacuees were given food allowances.

"There are a lot of different functions in our plan, and we’re asking the community to come out and take a look at what we have and what we will be requiring. A lot of functions need to be fulfilled," said Fletcher.

After last summer there is a heightened sense of awareness of natural disasters in the province, she says, and an understanding that they could just as easily happen in Whistler – you could argue that they almost did.

"The momentum has been there because it has been on everyone’s mind since the fires and the flood," said Fletcher. "To not be prepared these days is courting a disaster."

Following the display at Nesters, the ESS will be holding an orientation seminar for people who would like to volunteer or would like more information before they commit to anything. This will take place on May 13 from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in council chambers.

The training will take place in May and June, with as little as a one-day commitment for most volunteers.

In addition to appealing to the public, Fletcher is working with the RMOW and local businesses to encourage their staff to get involved.

The main focus of Emergency Preparedness Week is on individuals and families, emphasizing prevention and the need to be well-prepared and rehearsed for disaster situations.

Gord Leidel, one of Fletcher’s alternates as ESS Director, says he realized how important it can be to have an evacuation plan last summer when a house on the other side of the road from his home caught fire.

"We woke up to sirens and got up in time to see smoke and flames up in the air. I had visions of it spreading into the subdivision, and my wife was already packing the car with things that were important to her," said Leidel.

"It was so dry and the trees right next to this house were catching, so it was a miracle that (fire services) were able to contain the fire. Fortunately there was no wind that night, or things might have been a lot worse."

According to Leidel, people should prepare for the first 72 hours after an evacuation. That means food, water, medicine, pet supplies, diapers, batteries, etc. More information on creating an emergency kit will be distributed at Nesters this Saturday, and sample kits will be on display. In addition, volunteers will be handing out copies of the FireSmart Manual that was created after last summer’s wildfires, showing people how to assess their risk and take precautions.

"One of the things we like to say is that the only thing tougher than preparing for a disaster is explaining why you did not, not just as a community, but as individuals," said Leidel.

To give people incentives to come out to Nesters, people who drop by the ESS display will be eligible to win prizes, including a Whistler-Blackcomb Gold Express Card for next season, a three-month pass for Meadow Park, first aid kits, pet emergency kits, free vouchers at local hair salons, and more.

If you can’t make it to the booth or the orientation meeting on May 13 and want more information on ESS’s volunteer recruitment drive, contact Roger Weetman at 604-935-8355 or rweetman@whistler.ca.

You can also find more information online at www.emergencypreparedenessweek.com.

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