Smoke fills the sky as a wildfire burns near 100 Mile House. Black Press photo.

Campbell River emergency volunteer assisting wildfire victims

The province’s Emergency Social Services (ESS) program is designed to help people forced from their homes due to fire, earthquakes, floods or other emergencies. The volunteers with ESS make sure these people have food, shelter, clothing and emotional support during what is likely one of the most trying times of their lives.

And rarely, if ever, have ESS volunteers been more in demand than this summer.

Over 9,000 square kilometres of B.C. has burned so far this year, displacing thousands of people from their homes.

One of those dedicated volunteers, Campbell River’s Rick Wall, recently returned from a 19-day stretch helping out in the Interior.

He was only supposed to be there a week – and he’s only home for about 10 days before he heads back out for another deployment.

Wall volunteers for ESS here in Campbell River, but each year a call goes out to all the departments asking for volunteers who would be willing to be dispatched to various locations around the province should additional resources be needed in certain areas.

“I’m retired now,” Wall says by way of explanation. “I did 40 years in the Navy. I used to be the military liaison officer to the Vancouver Island Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centre (PREOC), so I know how PREOC Works, I know how an EOC (Emergency Operations Centre) works, I’ve been doing ESS for nine years, so I have some skillsets that might be useful, so I put my name forward every year.”

And this year, they took him up on his offer two days after he made it.

He volunteered on July 18 and his phone went off while he was mowing his lawn about 2 p.m. on July 20.

He was on an airplane to Prince George before 5 p.m.

“It moves fast when it happens,” Wall says simply.

Initially, he was supposed to help in Prince George, the Interior’s largest reception centre. There was also an idea that he would become a communications officer in Williams Lake. But when he heard about the situation in 100 Mile House, he asked if he could go there instead.

“The team of six people there were registering over 3,000 people,” Wall says. “They were evacuated themselves in the middle of the evacuation. The director down there was running things out of the back of her Jeep, because every time they’d get set up somewhere the fire would do something funny and they’d be off again, so she just said ‘to heck with it’ and started doing it out of her Jeep. And she’d been going non-stop for 2.5 weeks, putting in 18-20 hour days. She just needed some help.

That was an easy decision.”

The drive down from Prince George to 100 Mile House was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

Driving along deserted highways and through deserted towns, with periodic police checkpoints he had to be let through, “felt like I was in some kind of zombie movie or something. Even the light was that kind of diffused light, and there were no people anywhere – just a few police cars here and there patrolling. I felt like I was about to be attacked by zombies.”

Once he got there, he set up in the arena and set to work registering and helping those evacuated, helping organize provisions like cases of water and non-perishable food and handing out supplies.

His main job, however, turned out to be correcting misinformation.

“One of the lessons I’ve taken from this whole thing is that during major events, you need to know that social media is going to be a problem,” Wall says. “When someone comes up to you and starts a sentence with, ‘I saw something on Facebook…’,” he leaves it open ended and just shakes his head.

“Facebook is amazing at getting information out to begin with, but it’s even more amazing how things become misinformation and half truths after that,” Wall says.

One of the other major lessons he’s taken away from this is that it’s important to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of others.

“Givers are really bad at prioritizing their own needs,” he says. In fact, Wall himself ended up having “a minder,” who would ensure that he took breaks and ate lunch – basically so he didn’t overwork himself to exhaustion.

But more than anything else, he says, he couldn’t have done his job if it weren’t for the suppport of the community itself.

“It was amazing to see how the community rallied to help its neighbours,” he says. “And by that I don’t just mean the people on their street or in their town, I mean the communities themselves pulled together to help each other, as well, and that was really inspiring to see happen.”