HEU members, staff cope with forest fires in Interior B.C.

Forest fires raging for the better part of August are causing major trauma for British Columbians who live in the province’s interior, and health care workers have been striving to alleviate some of the distress suffered by others during the emergency.

HEU secretary-business manager Chris Allnutt says the thoughts of all HEU members are with their sisters and brothers who have been at the mercy of this year’s forest fire season. “Our hearts go out to all those whose homes and livelihoods have been so gravely threatened by the fires,” he said.

In Kelowna, thousands of people were evacuated from their homes last weekend and hundreds are now being evacuated from the Cranbrook area.

Maureen Shepherd, chair of the Kelowna HEU local, and Else Kristensen, a secretary in HEU’s Kelowna office, were among them.

Like many, Kristensen was allowed back home this weekend, but remains on evacuation alert.

Others like Shepherd are not yet allowed to return. For the past two days she has been allowed back on a day pass to inspect her still-standing home and now stays glued to the radio at her daughter’s home in the Kelowna suburb of Rutland, also under evacuation alert.

“Everyday at 11:00 a.m. there is a press conference and that is where I will learn if I can go back home,” she says. Not a woman to frighten easily, she says it was very scary. And hot. “You try to prepare yourself ahead of time, but you can’t think straight.” Still, she counts herself among the lucky ones and reports that no HEU members from the Kelowna local have lost their homes.

Cottonwoods, the extended care facility where Shepherd works, is still open, but on evacuation alert and on stand-by to accept seniors and disabled evacuees from other facilities if the need arises.

As of yesterday, Kelowna General Hospital was accepting new patients only on a limited basis and had cancelled elective surgeries. The emergency department continues to operate as required.

HEU staff rep Heather Arnold lives well out of the threatened areas, but spent Friday and Saturday at Kelowna’s Parkinson Recreation Centre, staffing emergency lines — helping families find each other and a place to stay for their pets. She is very impressed with the helping spirit of everyone in the affected areas, as are Shepherd and Kristensen.

Arnold reports that almost 70 residents from Sutherland Hills seniors’ residence in Kelowna have been evacuated to Vernon’s Noric House and Gateby Intermediate Care as well as the extended care unit at Vernon Jubilee Hospital.

Earlier on, at the beginning of August, Kamloops’ Ponderosa Lodge opened up a shut-down ward to accommodate evacuated residents from a private seniors’ care facility and a group home in Barrière, where fires were raging. Royal Inland Hospital sent 15 patients to Ponderosa to free up beds in case of fire-related injuries and illness.

Stewart Clark, chair of the Ponderosa local, pointed out the irony of using the soon-to-be-closed facility to take in these seniors from Barrière.

Noric and Gateby accepted 40 residents in early August along with their (HEU) caregivers from Armstrong’s Pleasant Valley Manor. “As far as I know, this situation is unprecedented,” said Maria Trowbridge, chair of HEU’s Noric House local.

As a preventative measure, the Interior Health Authority also sent 25 patients from Clearwater’s Dr. Helmken Memorial Hospital to Williams Lake’s Cariboo Lodge, Deni House and Cariboo Memorial Hospital; to 100 Mile House, where the hospital opened up “spare rooms” for the evacuees; and another to Kamloops’ Overlander Extended Care.

Allnutt commends the firefighters, police, ambulance paramedics and other emergency workers who with determination and true grit have been fighting against this destructive force for the better part of a month. “Many of them are members of other unions like CUPE and BCGEU and our hats go off to them for a job well-done,” he said.

“Health care workers of every stripe have gone above and beyond their duties during this crisis, too,” Allnutt said. “This is what being a health care worker means, and we are very proud of all of you.”