South Okanagan Events Centre staff and emergency social services volunteers set up 400 cots in the SOEC concourse Monday to house B.C. wildfire evacuees. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Penticton evacuation centre looking for volunteers

Local emergency social services director says volunteering is the best way to help wildfire evacuees

One of the biggest things the public can offer is their time, according to emergency social services volunteers providing aid to wildfire evacuees in Penticton.

In an effort to bring in more volunteers, the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen is offering a free training course Tuesday evening for those who want to offer their time to help with registering evacuees arriving in Penticton.

Related: $90M spent fighting B.C. wildfires since April 1

The City of Penticton can play host to upwards of 400 evacuees, after opening up areas of the South Okanagan Events Centre campus to shelter those who have been displaced by any of the 159 wildfires currently burning across the province.

“Most of them are concerned about their houses. They’re trying to get communication as to when they’ll be going back, how the fire’s doing,” said Penticton’s emergency social services director Bonny Billups. “And making sure their family is safe and trying to find family members, which is part of our job, is reunification along with the Red Cross.”

Operated through the RDOS, the emergency operations centre in Penticton is largely in the community centre’s gymnasium, with 400 cots set up in the concourse of the SOEC arena.

“In response to the fires up north, we were asked through the Province of B.C. for availability of space to receive evacuees,” said EOC director Mark Woods with the RDOS, who added that that call came due to an evacuation of Williams Lake on Saturday.

Related: Williams Lake evacuation went well, mayor says

Billups said she has been working on and off in the community centre since it opened up on Saturday night, noting that the first night was a quiet one.

“Once the news got out that we were open, we’re getting people coming up from Williams Lake, now, to register in Penticton because we still have hotel rooms and we have group lodging here and shorter lineups,” she said.

In the space of just a couple of hours, the number of people who registered with the Penticton EOC jumped from over 30 to over 100, according to Billups.

“Today was our first really busy day,” Billups said.

With about 15 volunteers regularly contributing to local ESS efforts Billpus said there have been around 30 people contributing since the EOC opened up on Saturday, but she’s looking to add another 50 trained members.

“We could always use more volunteers that are trained with registration and referrals,” she said. “The centre is going to be open for probably as long as the fire’s going. As long as we’re needed, we’ll be here.”

Currently, Billups said the EOC in Penticton has been operating fairly smoothly, for the most part.

“We get a little backlogged, sometimes, but the people are very patient, and they’re very happy to get a room and get a roof over their head and some groceries and some clothing,” she said.

“If they have insurance, of course, they should contact their insurance agents, because the insurance agents often have relocation fees if they are evacuated out of their homes. It covers things like cleaning your house afterwards. Some insurance agencies will cover these.”

Related: Firefighters deployed, illegal campfires reported

Beyond the 400 beds set up in the SOEC, Woods said the number of beds available for evacuees is fluid, with much of it depending on availability from local community members and vacant hotel rooms — as of noon Monday, there were around 100 beds available past the 400 in the SOEC.

“Based on what we’re seeing throughout the province, really it’s anybody’s guess what the needs will be for receiving individuals, so we’re just trying to get prepared,” Woods said. “We’ve worked with our municipal partners throughout the region to find out what space is available within communities.

“So, should people come down from the north, or in the event we’ve got something to deal with here, ourselves, we’re ready for that.”

For those who might be heading to Penticton from the fires, Woods said the most important thing is to get to the EOC in the community centre at 325 Power Street to register with the regional district.

Related: Princeton fire 50-per-cent contained

“They are now in a place that they can register and be comfortable. This is a safe place for people to relax, tell us what they need. And there’s trained people and wonderful volunteers to help with that,” Woods said.

On top of volunteers, Billups said there are some material needs that the EOC would be grateful to receive from the community.

“Diapers, kleenex, toilet paper, things like that we could probably use,” she said, adding that most people are getting incidentals elsewhere.

“We have some wonderful suppliers than have given us lots of support this week. … We could use some brand new teddy bears for kids that come in.”

Those who are interested in signing up for the training course Tuesday evening to volunteer with the EOC can do so at the emergency centre in the Penticton Community Centre gymnasium.

The course will run from 7 to 9 p.m. at the community centre.

Read more: Mac the therapy dog gives comfort to wildfire evacuees

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