“There but for the grace of God go I,” thought Brother John Burtch, pastor of the Youbou Community Church, last week while watching news reports of the fires in Fort McMurray.
For those who may not be familiar with the expression, it basically means but for the grace of God, the speaker might have suffered the same misfortunate as someone else. In this case, the devastating wildfires that surrounded Fort McMurray and forced the mandatory evacuation of all 80,000 residents on May 3.
“All of us around the lake, with the right conditions, could go up [in flames] in a heartbeat,” said Burtch.
The disaster struck close to home, which is why the church hosted a prayer vigil the following evening for all those impacted by the wildfires.
The idea was that of parishioner Lesley Joy, who was also moved by the images of the disaster she saw on the news.
“Watching these incredible pictures of people heading away into who knows what, no way of knowing what they’re going to come back to,” she said, upon arriving at the church.
She said she would be praying for people across Canada.
“Whether they’re in Timmins, Ont., because they have a relative there or they’ve fled the fire or they’re fighting the fire. There are so many people affected,” she said.
Joy echoed Burtch’s sentiments about how people in the Cowichan Lake district can likely relate to what’s happened in Fort McMurray because of how dry recent summers have been.
“Because of the drought, because of the fires that were close to here,” she said. “We just have a different appreciation for what they’re going through than someone might, say, living in a high-rise apartment in Vancouver.”
Burtch described the benedictine practice of “praying the news,” in which a person watches a television newscast, praying about its more difficult contents.
“Things like war in the Middle East or terrible car wrecks,” he said, adding that just before coming to the evening’s prayer vigil he saw a news item about the fatal car crash south of Fort McMurray, the only deaths reported to date in connection with the fires.
Lake Cowichan resident Charlie Vincent was on the same stretch of highway when that May 4 accident took place. Both occupants of an SUV were killed when it collided with a tractor trailer on Highway 881 and burst into flames. Vincent, a maintenance planner at the Nexen oil sands facility in Long Lake, had been evacuated with his coworkers and was on a bus travelling south with other evacuees when the accident occurred.
“It actually started a fire on the side of the road there. We sat there for three hours watching water bombers driving to douse the flames on the side of the road,” he said.
“I found it a little disturbing. We were supposed to be leaving a fire and instead we sort of drove right into one. At the time I didn’t realize it was an accident.”
Vincent was back at the lake by Thursday, and although he said his experience was nothing like some of the people fleeing Fort McMurray, he did describe the journey as somewhat of an odyssey.
“One thing that did kind of strike me while I was on the bus is the people who had been evacuated, they had their dogs and their children and it suddenly struck me it was like being on a bus full of refugees,” he said.
There is no word on when Vincent will be able to return to work at the Nexen plant, but he said it will be at least two weeks, if not longer. In the meantime, he’s happy to be with his family.
“It always feels good to be back home,” he said.
The situation in Fort McMurray has prompted jurisdictions across Canada to reflect on their own emergency preparedness in the event of a large-scale wildfire.
Cybille Sanderson, emergency program manager with the Cowichan Valley Regional District, described the recent fires up north as a “real wake up call” and said she hopes more people will take emergency preparation seriously as a result.
“We had five wildfires last year and we were really lucky that none of them involved structures. But the reality is we could have that happen this year,” she said.
Sanderson is responsible for emergency management — preparing for, responding to, recovering from and mitigating major emergencies — for the entire region, including the four municipalities, nine electoral areas and all eight First Nations.
She said when it comes to a major fire, her department works closely with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) and relies on its expertise in understanding factors like where and how quickly the fire is traveling. In any emergency, the CVRD will order a mandatory evacuation as soon as homes and lives are threatened.
“It’s really about our people, homes and structures. Are they impacted? If they are, then we do evacuate,” said Sanderson.
Working with FLNRO, the regional district will get a sense of which areas may need to be evacuated and will issue alerts if appropriate.
“Potentially what we would probably do is put out an advisory letting people know they may be required to evacuate on short notice, because as we know, fires can quickly change directions,” she said.
The CVRD has an emergency notification system people can sign up for through their website. This system allows the regional district to phone residents with a recorded message telling them they are on alert and should begin preparing for a potential evacuation. The recording also informs residents of the evacuee reception centre and suggests items to bring when leaving their homes.
Sanderson’s staff are not responsible for going door-to-door, notifying residents — that work is handled by the RCMP.
Lake Cowichan RCMP Sgt. Wes Olsen said during an emergency, he and his officers work to ensure an orderly evacuation in terms of traffic control and, if necessary, go door-to-door to inform people of the situation and ensure they get out.
“Even though the fire may be burning around Fort McMurray or, say, Lake Cowichan, we don’t abandon our responsibility and our duties. Personal safety is number one but we also protect personal property,” he said.
“If a full evacuation is ordered, I send my family out but unfortunately I have to stay behind and we’ve got to manage the policing requirements of the community we’re in.”
He said contrary to some beliefs, there is no universal evacuation plan for Lake Cowichan for all severe wildfires because each wildfire is unique and needs to be assessed individually. Although Duncan is the obvious destination point in the event of a fire striking Lake Cowichan from the west, if Highway 18 or the old Cowichan Lake highway were cut off due to wildfires, there are two possible westward escape routes — to Port Alberni via Nitinat or to Sooke and Victoria via the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
The mayor of Lake Cowichan can declare a local state of emergency in the event of a smaller-scale situation such as flooding on a street or a fire that affects just one area and is contained.
“That would be something he would be responsible for declaring and we would make sure those people have adequate accommodations and lodging and food,” said Joseph Fernandez, the town’s chief administrative officer. “But if it’s something that goes beyond our boundaries we have to rely on others like the Ministry of Forests and the regional district obviously and other agencies.”
Centennial Hall and the Cowichan Lake Sports Arena are the designated reception area in the event of a local emergency. Fernandez said this location might also be used in the event of a larger disaster, but only if the situation does not require residents to evacuate the area. In the event of a large wildfire, the town relies on the regional district’s emergency management team to determine where residents must go.