As ash falls from the sky around Williams Lake Wednesday morning, all signs around the city are pointing to a possible lifting of evacuation orders.
Officials have been in meetings since early this morning, while out-of-town media crews are beginning to arrive hoping to witness the much-anticipated return of residents, some of whom have been evacuated from their homes as long as three weeks now.
Main intersections are still being controlled by members of the Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP, but now there are signs posted outside Boitanio Mall directing returning evacuees to the Resiliency Centre, when they are allowed to come back.
Dale Kronebusch, manager of the centre, was in the upper level of Boitanio Mall early Wednesday morning preparing for what will be the next step for Cariboo Chilcotin residents.
“It’s a centre that looks after the needs once the immediate needs have been met,” Kronebusch said. “It is a one-stop care for our evacuees.”
When residents enter Boitanio Mall (closest to Save-On Foods) they will be able to access services to their immediate right, which will house all the business needs, or to the left, which will care for all the social needs of evacuees.
In the business centre, Service Canada will be set up to assist those who need access to pension cheques. They will also help those needing to file Employment Insurance claims and ensure they get to the top of the priority list.
Service BC will also be on hand to help residents replace personal identification as needed.
Kronebusch said the Insurance Bureau of Canada will also be set up on the business side of the Resiliency Centre along with as many as 12 insurance companies who are able to start claims and “cut cheques on the spot.”
Utilities companies such as Telus, BC Hydro and Shaw will have booths at the centre as well as ICBC for those who may have lost vehicles in the wildfires.
To the left, representatives from the Ministry of Children and Family Development will be on hand to assist those, for example, with foster children in their care, as well as the Ministry of Social Sustainability.
Kronebusch said local First Nations governments will also be set up at the centre, along with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).
Also available to anyone at the centre will be mental health services, a church faith group and the Women’s Contact Centre. There will also be counsellors roaming the facility to assist those in need, including volunteers and staff.
When the evacuation order is lifted, Kronebusch said residents should go home first. The Resiliency Centre will be opened the first morning following the rescinding of the order from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., and every day after that as needed.
Of course, the largest component of the Resiliency Centre will be the Red Cross.
Kronebusch said the Red Cross is staging six interview areas for needs assessments. That would include payments for those who haven’t received any yet as well as the $300 stipend families will receive upon their return home.
As well, returning evacuees can expected to get everything they need to clean their homes upon their return.
Two kits will be given to residents. The first is an “After Fire Kit” which has masks, gloves, a flashlight, cleaner and the like.
The second is a “Cleaning Kit” which consists of brooms, squeegees, a scrub brush, masks, rubber gloves and a mop in a large white wash bucket.
Every member of the family will also receive a hygiene tote which consists of a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and soap.
Kronebusch said Red Cross will be accessible by appointment only, which should be made in person at the centre. He expects they can process about 10 people per hour through appointments.
“We will run into some issues with staffing but we will see how it goes.”
Days ago, William Lake Mayor Walt Cobb requested grocery stores, the local hospital and other businesses prepare for reentry of residents this week. Yesterday he said food was stocked and hospital staff were at the ready. The last step in the process is of course the final determination that nearby wildfires surrounding the city and rural areas are controlled and that it is safe for residents to return.
Thunderstorms and winds are forecasted for the day and fire crews with air support continue their efforts to suppress the nearby White Lake fire.
Fires did not enter Williams Lake, so no homes were lost in the city. Four homes were lost in the 150 Mile House fire. There are expected to be other losses in the Spokin Lake fire, Wildwood fire, White Lake fire which crossed over the Soda Creek Road and in the Hanceville-Riske Creek fire, though no official numbers have been released yet by the CRD, who have been dealing with a multitude of issues during the wildfire crisis from access for ranchers to rural fire departments and issuing several evacuation orders and alerts stretching from one end of the district to the other.
Cobb and Cariboo Regional District Chair Al Richmond were both in meetings Wednesday morning and unavailable for comment. We hope to bring residents up-to-date with both leaders via Facebook Live as soon as they are available.