Vulnerable disproportionally affected by wildfires

Need may still increase

While being evacuated and living under the terror of a wildfire threatening homes and livelihoods has affected everyone in the South Cariboo, some have been particularly impacted.

Those with lower incomes may experience a bigger financial toll than others in the community, says Chris Pettman, Executive Director of the Cariboo Family Enrichment Centre.

Compared to the average home owner, who may be able to access insurance to cover expenses while evacuated or apply for a deferral on their mortgage, Pettman says many don’t have that coverage.

“Low-income people, they don’t own their home, or maybe they don’t have insurance. As a renter, regardless of whether you are there or not, you are paying rent. So not only are you spending money abroad but you are also having to maintain a lot of utilities and rent costs in a place you have been evacuated from, so it’s going to take a long time to recoup that.”

Susann Collins, the Executive Director of both the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Women’s Centre agrees.

“From what I have seen, the people who are far more vulnerable, the people of lower income, having to leave has put a great hardship on people. There is no money to spare to begin with and now suddenly they have to go away somewhere else and find somewhere to stay and stay away for that period of time,” she says. “The Red Cross money has been great for many people and for others that may not have covered their expenses as well depending on the situation.”

Pettman says the financial support evacuees were able to receive in the form of $600 from the Red Cross or vouchers from Emergency Social Services was helpful; however, he says it’s hard to say whether that was enough for families with low incomes.

“For some cases that is enough for one person living in a dwelling, but let’s say a family of six. Is that really enough even for gas money?” he says.

“I would say from family to family that would vary, but I would say overall, it’s probably not adequate, not in today’s world.”

Additionally, while Pettman says he is grateful for the assistance, people may have had challenges even accessing that help, due to limitations with technology, or a delay in response from the system.

Pettman refers to Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, saying that at the very basic level people need food, water and accommodations. Once they have taken care of those needs, people can take care of their security, and once there, relationships and so on.

“I’ve found that people right now are still on that base level now because the finance and the day to day living is paramount for them so it’s hard to go forward on that step ladder or chart because you can’t get the basic needs met.”

Even once people have taken care of that, he says, people in the community generally still aren’t feeling safe.

Collins says there has been trauma for everyone in the community, to some degree, but that everyone experiences trauma differently.

While she says she has talked with people who had positive evacuation experiences, and those with regular incomes who have had terrible experiences, she says her organizations have already seen an increase in need for services.

“It’s up there among the most traumatic things a person can experience in their whole life. I think we need to give ourselves permission to recognize all of us are experiencing something from impact from the fires.”

At the Women’s Centre, she says there has been an increase the need of support for women fleeing abuse.

“Often we see that increased stress or trauma and all that stuff, it has an impact on many levels and so when in the aftermath of anything big there is often an increased level of abuse and violence.”

Pettman says he’s also seen an increased need for services at the CFEC.

They’ve handed out basic supplies like toiletries, but they’ve also provided a place for people to tell their stories.

“I think that really normalizes it for them. All of a sudden they realize they have a common experience that a lot of their community and fellow community members experienced.”

The CMHA and the Women’s Centre both provide counselling services and the CMHA can also help with low-income housing and have a homeless outreach worker. All three organizations are able to link people to the appropriate place to seek the support they need.

Collins says her staff are reaching out to organizations in Fort McMurray to find out what worked there, and when the need became greatest.

“What I’ve heard, the most need for support won’t come for a little while, for another month or two, until after things have settled back down, the emergency services are gone and we’re now back to living our lives.”

She says this is partially because the extra services in the area now, likely won’t be there anymore.

“I think that is going to be when we will see the most impact.”

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