The most difficult jobs our local Search and Rescue volunteers encounter isn’t always hanging off of a cliff for a rope rescue over the rapids of a raging river. Sometimes, it is knocking on doors in the middle of the night telling sleepy homeowners they must wake up, right now, and evacuate the premises.
South Cariboo SAR search manager James Seeley says for their many local members, this was compounded by the fact they were working in their own neighbourhoods, while evacuated themselves and facing a night on a cot at the SAR hall.
A task so tough, they were provided Critical Incident Stress Debriefing afterward to help them deal with any emotional aftermath, he adds.
“We have had some background with this, so it’s not a new thing for us. However, this was a very complex situation with way more properties and in way more territories than what we’ve previously done.”
Seeley says the SCSAR members’ first involvement was for the evacuation of 108 Mile Ranch on July 7, helping the 100 Mile House RCMP in setting up the emergency centre at the community hall.
The next step for the local members was following a map to knock on doors at all the addresses and hand out copies of the printed order, then noting down who was leaving, or had left already using evidence like notes on their doors, he explains.
Seeley adds that over the course of the summer, local members evacuated people across the South Cariboo.
In many areas, thousands of people own rural properties, summer homes or cabins, so accessing them all involved using SCSAR quads and driving down long rural side roads and driveways.
“The most difficult part … was the Canim Lake fire that erupted around 5 p.m., and by 11 p.m., it was like ‘we’ve got to get the people out of there.’ So now we are trying to activate a SAR team, [to get] people out of their own evening routine and ask people to ‘go’ all night long,” he says.
“It is a difficult thing.”
Seeley says anytime you walk onto someone’s property at 1 a.m. and bang on their door, there is a certain suspicion faced when that door opens.
While SAR members perform “a messenger service” and do not actually insist or escort any folks away, it can still be a rough message to deliver, especially after dark, he adds.
Seeley says one of the trickiest parts in performing the evacuations was alerting those who simply didn’t seem to understand what it meant, or steadfastly refused to leave.
“Lots say ‘we’ll wait until morning, we’ll wait until first light’. In some cases, you have to … say ‘look, we cannot say the egress is going to be safe by first light, and you have been on alert for days.”
While Seeley worked through his own evacuation, with two dogs and a cat in a trailer parked outside the SAR hall, he credits his team members. He points to their courage and stamina in stepping up under their own stressful evacuations.
No trace of selfishness was seen anywhere, Seeley says, from the folks who helped members to get permission to transport Save-on-Foods donations through roadblocks to hungry pilots at 108 Mile, to many other supports, small or large, that “open your eyes to this community spirit.”
“I get kind of choked up when I get thinking about it … how different people did different things. Like Liz Jones in ESS — just tireless.”
Seeley acknowledges the many “stories within stories” about all the hardworking and “multi-tasking” volunteers, among them, his comrades at SCSAR.
“Shane Gunn was instrumental in food truck deliveries; Randy McRoberts out in Forest Grove, he and a group of people out there worked tirelessly to ensure there was a food bank [there]; … our members working with community groups making sure animals got watered; all kinds of stuff like that.”
Meanwhile, his fellow SCSAR search managers, Val Severin and Sam Bergman, have been tirelessly performing similar duties in Williams Lake.
Seeley also expresses amazement and gratitude to his community for showing their true colours under the extreme duress of wildfire emergencies unlike any most have ever seen, and hope never to see again.
“I always knew there was something special about this community, and this proves it … the people in this community were so fabulous in how they reached out and helped each other, it just blows me away completely.”