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‘From one minute to the next, you don’t know what you’re going to be faced with’: MPs lend a hand, sympathetic ear to B.C. wildfire victims

By Rachel Aiello      

MPs in the fire-stricken British Columbia interior say they’ve been acting more as community volunteers than Members of Parliament as they help the thousands of constituents who have had to flee their homes, uncertain of what they’ll return to.

Conservative MPs Todd Doherty, top, and Cathy McLeod, bottom, are among those whose constituents are affected by wildfires ravaging parts of British Columbia's interior. They represent neighbouring ridings in the Cariboo region. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright, photograph courtesy of the B.C. Wildfire Service
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Conservative MP Todd Doherty is preparing to have family members including his in-laws, cousins, aunts and uncles, and possibly some friends camped out in his Prince George, B.C. living room and driveway by day’s end.

The MP’s Cariboo-Prince George, B.C. riding is one of the hardest hit by the fires that have set parts of British Columbia’s interior ablaze since late last week. There are around 220 active wildfires throughout the province that have forced more than 14,000 people from their homes, and caused the province to declare a state of emergency and ask for federal help.

“We’ve got space available. [We’ll do] whatever we can do to help. And we’ve got a big driveway, so if they bring their trailers or motor homes up, they can stay in the driveway, or they can stay in the house. That’s what you do, right?” said Mr. Doherty in an interview from his riding on Wednesday.

He called the situation “unbelievable.” He estimates around 34,000 people in his riding have been affected by the fires.

His in-laws came up from he and his wife Kelly’s hometown of Williams Lake, B.C. on Tuesday night as the community of more than 10,000 people was put on evacuation alert.

Mentioning his Conservative colleague David Yurdiga, the MP for Fort McMurray, Alta., where just a year ago residents were in similar need of help when 590,000 hectares of the community went up in flames, Mr. Doherty said he appreciates now what they went through.

“I fully understand now what it was that he was going through when my own mother tells me that they had a knock on the door on Friday night and literally had minutes to get out and were escorted through flames,” said Mr. Doherty. He also spoke of a single mother who left her home with three kids in tow and not enough diapers to last, and fathers who had elected to stay behind and fight the flames as their families fled.

“Those emotions are incredibly high, so from one minute to the next you don’t know what you’re going to be faced with,” said Mr. Doherty, noting that others in Prince George have similarly welcomed close to 4,000 evacuees to their front lawns, businesses, and temples for shelter. Mr. Doherty said he’s been helping where he can, whether coordinating supplies, or attending information sessions and spreading key updates via YouTube videos.

“It is lending a hand, it is lending an ear, or providing a shoulder for somebody to lean on. That’s what we do here. And for the last five days I haven’t been an MP, I’ve just been a community volunteer, and that’s what’s more important than any title,” he said.

Parts of Conservative MP Cathy McLeod’s Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, B.C. constituency, like 100 Mile House, have been evacuated, and as Ms. McLeod put it in an interview, “quite significantly impacted.”

“It’s a very trying time. And it’s very trying to be in an environment that’s so smoke-filled and, again, with very uncertain predictability in terms of what’s going to happen over the next while,” Ms. McLeod, told The Hill Times on Tuesday from Kamloops, where a number evacuees from the surrounding communities have ended up.

The total damage is far from being tallied, but in some places it’s already clearly significant. The CBC reported that an administrator with the nearby Ashcroft Indian Band said nearly half of the homes in the reserve had been lost as of Saturday.

Ms. McLeod said one of the more heartwarming moments amid the devastation came when a trailer full of supplies and volunteers arrived from Fort McMurray, Alta., paying it forward. Seeing the “beautiful hand-painted notes” on the trailer, and that people were so willing to help out made it a real pleasure for her to help unload the water bottles and Gatorade aboard.

“Right now I’m acting more as a volunteer, and also keeping my ear to the ground,” said Ms. McLeod, adding that shortly before speaking to The Hill Times she had completed training to assist with evacuee registrations. Once the fires are under control she anticipates her constituency office being busy helping constituents with applications for employment insurance, and replacing passports and Indian status cards.

“People have left their homes often without anything,” she said.

The entire province is “tinder dry” as Mr. Doherty described it, and a number of other fires have started in the surrounding area, including in, or around the ridings of Conservative MP Bob Zimmer (Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, B.C.); Liberal MP Stephen Fuhr (Kelowna-Lake Country, B.C.); Conservative MP Dan Albas (Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, B.C.); and Liberal MP Jati Sidhu (Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, B.C.).

Many of the fires are suspected to be caused by lightning, but also by people. All open fires have been banned province-wide.

Mr. Fuhr said his riding hasn’t been hit significantly, but has experienced a few small fires. He said in an interview it’s been hard to watch.

“It’s unsettling. People getting uprooted and moved away from their possessions. And their life [is] being turned over in the middle of summer; it’s tough. The potential that they might lose their possessions, all of that uncertainty and that some of it may or may not turn into a reality is tough on families here.”

Adding to the challenge of getting the hundreds of fires under control is the weather forecast, said Mr. Fuhr.

“We just don’t see anything but sun and dryness. And then typically this time of year if it rains, unfortunately that rain is associated with vertical development in clouds, which means thunderstorms. So even a little bit of rain may or may not be helpful, depending [on] if it’s associated with lightning. So it’s just a really tough situation right now,” he said.

On Monday, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) said that 1,000 firefighters are working to fight the burning woods, with another 300 on their way. The federal government has sent cots, blankets, and aircraft to also assist in relief efforts. A July 9 press release from the defence department noted the Canadian Armed Forces had sent a large cargo aircraft, a four-engine turboprop transport aircraft, two Chinook helicopters, and three Griffon helicopters to help.

MPs say the emergency response from the provincial and federal governments has been swift and cohesive. Mr. Doherty said he wants to make sure that assistance continues even after the flames are extinguished and people begin to rebuild.

“I would really like our colleagues to understand what we’re going through out here,” he said. “It’s a fairly fluid situation…this is the biggest critical-incidence event that we’ve ever dealt with [as a community].”

The well-orchestrated assistance so far is something Ms. McLeod thinks was learned from the 2003 wildfire season that saw more than 2,400 wildfires force 45,000 people from their homes throughout the province.

In her area, Ms. McLeod said what she’s seeing now is more fires in bigger areas that are “significantly more serious.”

“It has the potential to be worse, for sure, given the number of fires, and the proximity of fires to urban centres,” said Mr. Fuhr.


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