(Image by Becky Dochstader)
Tierney Watkinson | News Director
As of the beginning of September, 1,148 fires have started in British Columbia this year. Across BC, flames have devoured 1,054,686 hectares of land, with 816,379 of those hectares burned in the Cariboo alone. A Provincial State of Emergency was declared within the first week of July. The crisis is still not over, with fires continuing to crop up across the province.
Responding to the state of emergency and to support the influx of people into the city who were fleeing wildfires, UNBC and the Charles Jago Northern Sport Centre opened their doors to evacuees, residential home patients, and out-of-province firefighters. The NSC accompanied the College of New Caledonia, which was the first to open as an Emergency Reception Centre, and Prince George Secondary School as places supplying cots for group lodging. Pets, too, were accommodated with their families at these centres.
The City of Prince George welcomed evacuees with open arms. Speaking with Mike Kellett—Senior Communications Officer of Prince George—in mid-July, Kellett expressed enthusiasm for the city’s reception of evacuees and noted that Prince George had already supplied over $300,000 worth of groceries. Red wristbands were distributed to identify evacuees to store owners offering discounts for them. By the end of July, at least 10,000 evacuees had registered in Prince George.
Volunteers worked arduously, losing sleep and in some cases personal work hours to secure temporary homes and care for evacuated people and their animals arriving from the Central Interior and Cariboo areas. Horses, cattle, and other livestock found temporary homes at the PG Agriplex and Exhibition grounds, as well as at neighboring ranches. At one time, 200 animals were housed at the Agriplex alone. Organizations such as the Prince George Horse Society and the PG Humane Society went to great lengths to ensure horses and other animals and pets that could not be with their families during the evacuations were fed and properly cared for. Volunteer PG became the primary organizer of individual community members looking for ways to help. So many people offered their time and resources that the City opened a volunteer centre, headed by Volunteer PG, with the sole purpose of managing the volunteer effort.
Offers to help even poured in as comments on multiple social media posts. When the NSC announced its temporary closure on behalf of evacuees on its Facebook page, commenters did not provide notes of outrage that the business would be closed, but rather an overflow of support and praise for the initiative. Someone even offered that the Northern Sport Centre keep the rebates that the centre was offering to clients, in order for the money to go towards helping wildfire evacuees.
Kellett cited UNBC as being an outstanding partner in the evacuation aid effort, a statement cemented by Matt Wood, Director of Communications and Marketing at UNBC, who explained that NSC provided cots for 180 evacuees initially, and up to 460 more when they expanded their evacuation centre to include the soccer fields; 563 beds were set up by July 26, when remaining evacuees at CNC were relocated to the NSC. At the request of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, UNBC used classrooms in the Geoffrey R. Weller Library, the dining hall, and the Gathering Place to provide sleeping areas for 180 firefighters called in from out of province, and the cafeteria prepared meals for them. Residential care patients were given lodgings in the Neyoh Dorms; 60 patients were hosted in the dorms toward the end of July. Town Halls were held regularly in the Canfor Theatre to keep evacuees updated on the current situation.
Finally, as July drew to a close, evacuation orders were lifted in cities such as One Hundred Mile House and Williams Lake, allowing many to return home. In preparation for the return of its students and in light of those lifted evacuation orders, CNC passed the torch of Emergency Reception Centre to the Prince George Service Centre on August 4. Those evacuees whose homes were still under order were transferred to paid commercial lodgings in the city. The NSC, closed since July 10, began de-mobilizing (removing cots and plywood from the soccer fields) August 10 and reopened to the public on August 18; regular fitness classes are set to resume on September 18. Firefighters were also moved to commercial lodging, so that UNBC could accommodate students as they return for the fall semester.
The thought of having to leave your home and belongings behind to flee any natural disaster is terrifying. Many of UNBC’s own students work as wildfire fighters during the summer months, and surely deserve all of our thanks for preventing the fires from spreading more than they did. Prince George and its citizens went above and beyond the call for help. Businesses and individuals alike accepted many inconveniences and donated hours and hours of time without hesitation to help complete strangers.
The worst events bring out the best in us.