Needed changes for Emergency Support Services in Central Okanagan

Challenges and successes of ESS program during 2023 Grouse Complex wildfire outlined in report
Wildfire evacuees at the reception centre at Royal LePage Place in West Kelowna on August 19, 2023.

Major changes have been made and more are coming to the regional Emergency Support Services (ESS) program.

ESS Supervisor Jason Bedell outlined the challenges and successes that the program faced during the Grouse Complex wildfire in 2023 to the Regional District Central Okanagan Board on June 13.

“It was an event that test ESS to its very limits.”

ESS was heavily criticized over long wait times and insufficient resources as approximately 24,000 people were evacuated.

“I recognize there are valuable lessons to be learned from last year and we understand there is room for improvement,” Bedell added. “We can do better.”

He noted that ESS’s new muster centre plan has been recently been approved and implemented.

“We have identified a location in each municipality and are finalizing floor plans as well as identifying site deficiencies.”

Bedell said centres, such as large arenas, will provide immediate, broader supports to evacuees including shelter, information and other supports.

A full-scale muster centre exercise was held on June 1 in West Kelowna to train volunteers and municipal liaisons.

Bedell said the provincial government is expected to have a virtual self-service option available for evacuees this wildfire season.

“Allowing evacuees to complete the registration and referrals process on a smart device.”

A provincial helpline will also be available, and shelter allowances of $200 to $400 a night have been approved.

“I’m optimistic about these changes in particular,” Bedell said. “This will allow us to re-focus in person ESS support on those with the highest need.”

Bedell added that Kelowna has been chosen to pilot the emergency management central booking system which provides volunteers with access to available hotel rooms in the region.

The number of ESS volunteers has also been increased to166 from 122.

Bedell asked the RDCO board for help in advocating to the province to ensure food referrals for evacuees align with the cost of living.

“We heard extensively last year that the existing ESS rates are not sufficient to support a family during crisis.”

He also requested assistance to enable local ESS programs to provide on-demand training to volunteers when required for operational needs.

Gary Barnes

About the Author: Gary Barnes

Journalist and broadcaster for three decades.
Read more