Though Penticton has only received a fraction of the nearly 40,000 displaced by wildfires in B.C., there has been little shortage of volunteers and offers of help.
Over 200 people have sought refuge in Penticton, most of whom are staying with family or friends, according to Emergency Social Services director Alida Erickson. She taught two classes for volunteers looking to help process paperwork for evacuees registering at the local evacuation reception centre this week.
“I had 40 people in the class last night We have another class for this evening, which is full,” Erickson said on Wednesday. “I think we’re going to get some phenomenal volunteers out of the group. People were keen, they were understanding quickly. They were there because they wanted to be there.
“And we’ve had several people already from last night’s class showing up for shifts today, so they’re learning on the fly and it’s wonderful.”
A volunteer named Claire said she had volunteered before, but had been asked to jump in, again, because of the high need in the current situation.
“I volunteered because I like being involved in the community and they need a lot of people down here,” she said “I feel for people in this particular situation because they probably just lost everything, although they don’t even know, actually, whether their house is still there.”
While the two classes have come and gone, Erickson said those still interesting in volunteering with the evacuation centre may still have some opportunities.
“If you’re still interested in coming down to volunteer, you’re welcome to come down to the reception centre and fill out a volunteer registration form,” she said. “If things keep on developing, we will phone you when we set up another class, which will probably be next week.”
For Claire, there’s little difference in volunteering for a local cause and one providing help to those who are coming from far off in the province. Erickson agreed, noting that it hasn’t been difficult for many to put themselves in the shoes of evacuees coming to town.
“I think the Fort McMurray fires last year really made people realize that that acould happen to anyone of us,” she said. “Then when you hear of fires as close as the Kaleden fire was … and we all have friends or family somewhere, and you think of them having to evacuate. … It appeals to the good side of people.”
Beyond volunteers, the ESS has been receiving offers of help of all kinds from various community members, from Starbucks coffee by the bucket to clothing donations.
“There’s an awful lot of people who have come by and ask can we use anything, can they donate anything, are they able to help in any way,” she said, noting that there’s even been a bit of an excess in some donations.
“Some things we aren’t able to take advantage of at the moment, regarding donated clothing and that sort of thing, because we have no place for storage.”
Among those offering their services, Time Flies Indoor Play operator Tricia Hernes is offering a space for evacuees with kids 10 and under to play and relieve a bit of stress.
“We’re offering free indoor play for anybody who’s been evacuated. Obviously, for kids it’s a really hard situation for them to understand, and play is the best type of therapy for kids,” Hernes said.
“We’re really looking to offer a home away from home, so any evacuees that are coming to the area from any of the fires nearby, they can come for a complimentary play and then they can stay as long as they want.”
That’s redeemable by bringing papers from an evacuation centre proving you’ve been registered as an evacuee.
And while it’s still early days, Hernes said she’s already heard from one family.
“We just had our first call from a family that’s been evacuated from Clearwater, so they’re looking to come, get away with their kids,” Hernes said. “(It’s a) slow trickle, because I think Penticton’s just starting to get the trickle of evacuees.”
While Erickson said the Fort McMurray fire last year was a reason some felt urged to volunteer, Hernes, too, said she got the idea, in part, from the massive Alberta blaze.
“Quite a few of the families (from Fort McMurray) were from here or had family here and were coming back here until they knew that they could go home,” she said.
“Quite a few of the families were coming in here, and this became a sort of home base for a lot of them.”