Wildfires sometimes force people to run for their lives.
This can spark fear and confusion about where they will go and who will help them and their animals.
In response, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District's (CSRD) Emergency Support Services (ESS) program provides evacuees with compassionate and practical care.
Since the 2021 wildfire season began in earnest towards the end of July, approximately 800 people have sought services from the Shuswap Emergency Program's ESS.
On Wednesday, August 11, volunteers were taking advantage of a lull in the action to catch up on paperwork, knowing full well that a forecast for a wind and extreme high temperatures over the weekend could swell activity in the reception centre. They want people to know that when that happens, committed volunteers will be ready for them.
Emergency Support Services Co-ordinator since 2007, Cathy Semchuk says the long days are beginning to blur together. While she enjoys helping people, her passion for the position is due to her "amazing volunteers."
"If they are committed, I want them to be fulfilled with what they're doing, and be recognized for what they're doing."
The admiration is mutual.
A volunteer since 2003, Lester McInally thrives on helping people and says Semchuk is exceptional to work with.
"The program is great; we help people who are under a lot of stress," she says. "Most people are very thankful. They can sit here and have someone listen to them."
Another longtime volunteer, Judith Hutchins simply says, "it feels nice to do something nice for people."
Echoing the comments of her fellow volunteers, Sherry Gilroy says "I volunteer for this kind of thing because it's important and I feel grateful I can do it."
Sitting at an adjacent table, Shannon Gilroy laughs at the notion her mother "dragged" her into a volunteer role with ESS.
"I pulled her in," she says of her mom, who has a long history of volunteerism with other agencies.
As they arrive, evacuees are shown into a room where they can decompress with a cup of coffee.
Greeter Mavis Cole then accompanies them into a large room where one of several volunteers conducts an interview and evaluates their needs.
Working in concert with Emergency Management BC, Semchuk says the focus is on providing volunteers with vouchers for accommodation and groceries.
"We get our marching orders from the province, but we do have a bit of flexibility," she adds, noting that if people have had to flee at a moment's notice, they may be provided with other items such as clothing or hygiene items.
Semchuk is amazed by continuing community generosity in Salmon Arm and Sicamous, pointing out the reception centre has received many donations of toys, toiletries, and pet supplies.
She says the SPCA, area hotels, grocery stores and restaurants have provided incredible support.
"If we didn't have them, we wouldn't have the program," she says, noting accommodation or services are provided based solely on receipt of a pink voucher that confirms the province will pay. "They have put the focus on evacuees and that's how the community comes together."
This year, the ESS first supported the Thompson Nicola Regional District for a fire near Sunday Peaks. A reception centre was then opened in Sicamous on July 20 in response to the Two Mile Fire while another was located in Anglemont to support evacuees from the Hunakwa Lake Fire.
When the White Rock Lake Fire forced Falkland residents to flee on August 4, volunteers remained in the reception centre until 1:30 am and were back at their posts by 8 am.
Semchuk says there are 30 or 35 ESS volunteers who have been actively assisting with this summer's fire season response.
The program is always looking for new volunteers. If you want to be of service during an emergency, contact 250-833-5927 or email the program coordinators.