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After wildfire evacuees faced 'challenges' accessing support, B.C. to conduct review

Veteran Rob Pullen, left, and Warren Pullen, who were evacuated from their home on Thursday due to wildfires, sit with their dogs outside their trailer in the parking lot at an evacuation centre, in Kelowna, B.C., Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck Veteran Rob Pullen, left, and Warren Pullen, who were evacuated from their home on Thursday due to wildfires, sit with their dogs outside their trailer in the parking lot at an evacuation centre, in Kelowna, B.C., Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
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A review will be done to figure out why evacuees were unable to get support or accommodation immediately after fleeing a wildfire in B.C.'s Okanagan, according to the emergency management minister.

At a news conference Monday, Bowinn Ma noted that the West Kelowna reception centre buckled under the weight of the demand that arose when thousands were forced to flee in the area, and that the province has been trying to triage a backlog of requests.

"We are acutely aware that the West Kelowna reception center faced challenges processing the number of evacuees that arrived there in a timely manner, resulting in abnormally long wait times before being referred to accommodations and receiving per diem supports," she said.

That situation, which saw people sleeping in their cars or camping out in the parking lot, has been described by Premier David Eby as "unacceptable" on several occasions.

Further, Ma said other evacuees who should have been eligible for per diem expense coverage or no-cost accommodations ended up paying out of pocket. Funding through Emergency Support Services, Ma added, is typically not provided retroactively – meaning payments are not backdated and those who do spend their own money aren’t eligible to be reimbursed.

However, Ma said she has directed staff reviewing cases where critical support was delayed to exercise "compassion and flexibility" and that the province is "working quickly to establish a process for people who were unable to receive emergency support services due to long wait times and covered costs for accommodations through their own means.” The first step, Ma said, is for evacuees to call 1-800-585-9559 or email embc.ess@gov.bc.ca

In addition, she said the province will be looking more closely at how the situation unfolded and what needs to be done to prevent similar "challenges" in the future.

While local evacuation centres are run by local governments and staffed by volunteers, Ma said the province has stepped in to bolster resources in order to respond to the surge in demand, and that the tourism industry has been supportive in providing accommodations to people not yet approved for emergency support.

Still, Ma said the number and frequency of emergencies and evacuations due to extreme weather in the province in recent years have necessarily prompted questions and concerns about whether the systems in place are adequate.

"It used to be that these kinds of extreme weather events would hit communities once in a while and we would be able to work with communities to gear up their emergency management teams on the fly and respond to the needs that have," Ma said.

"But now they're becoming so frequent and so common right across the province that the very important question of how much more we need to bolster those services is very, very valid."

Earlier this month, after touring the Okanagan, Eby said the province is considering setting up a dedicated, professional, year-round and province-wide apparatus for emergency response.

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