British Columbia

Restrictions at long-term care facilities had just started to relax. Then the wildfires came

Raging wildfires in the Interior of British Columbia have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, including vulnerable seniors in long-term care homes who have already weathered an incredibly challenging year.

Residents describe being forced to flee fire-threatened care homes

Residents of Carefree Manor, an assisted living facility in 100 Mile House, had to leave due to fire risk and are now scattered between three other facilities in the province waiting for word it is safe to return home. Image does not depict a resident of the facility. (Shutterstock)

Raging wildfires in the Interior of British Columbia have forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, including vulnerable seniors in long-term care homes who have already weathered an incredibly challenging year.

Less than a month after the provincial government lifted the pandemic state of emergency, another emergency was declared in response to the fires. More than 4,300 properties are under evacuation order across the province and 17,700 more are on alert as of Thursday morning.

Residents of Carefree Manor, an assisted-living home in the town of 100 Mile House, are among those who have already been evacuated — and while staff and tenants were prepared it was still a significant logistical challenge, said Riz Gehlen, owner and operator of the 36-bed facility.

Gehlen, speaking Thursday on CBC's The Early Editionsaid the facility was alerted to the possibility of an evacuation order on July 14 but didn't wait to start moving people out of harm's way.

"You want to get the vulnerable seniors out at the point of an alert," said Gehlen. "It's not easy to to pull this off."

He said Interior Health helped locate beds in facilities not threatened by fire, but there was no one home that could take everyone and the residents had to be split up between homes in Williams Lake, Merritt and Chase.

"That probably would be the biggest challenge for us, as you go from having one controlled environment that everyone's familiar with and then moving them and splitting them up and putting our seniors, our residents, in unfamiliar surroundings," said Gehlen.

The uprooting comes just as visitor restrictions eased at long-term care homes Monday, meaning a sense of normalcy was in reach for residents who have already faced months of social isolation due to COVID-19.

And Gehlen has no idea when those residents will be able to return home.

"We don't have any sense of what that timeline looks like right now. I get up every morning and look at the weather and I don't see any rain or anything ... I think we're in here for a bit," he said.

More than 3,000 people are currently involved in tackling more than 250 fires burning in B.C. (Submitted by Mike Fitzpatrick)

Approximately three hours southeast of 100 Mile House, 86-year-old Anne Dolman can commiserate with the residents of Carefree Manor.

Dolman also has no idea when she will be able to return to her home at Eagle Valley Manor in Sicamous, B.C., after evacuating a few days ago.

When staff asked her to pack a grab-and-go bag just in case, Dolman busied herself doing just that. But while she was organizing her necessities, word came they had to go — now.

A wildfire burns out of control near Sicamous, B.C. on July 20. (Shuswap Emergency Program/Twitter)

"I had called a friend and they knew and that was it. They picked me up and I've been here since," said Dolman, who is staying with a couple who live near the manor but away from fire risk and are helping her stay calm.

Dolman told The Early Edition on Thursday that Eagle Valley staff have been wonderful at keeping people safe through the pandemic and now this provincial emergency.

She said residents were asked where they would want to evacuate to before the order came and when it did, manor staff had already made sure those locations were safe and could accommodate residents.

"It'll be nice to get back," said Dolman, adding the manor is a wonderful place to live.

The wildfire burning near Sicamous, B.C., pictured on July 20. (B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter)

Despite the hardship of the pandemic and the uncertainty of her current situation, Dolman is keeping a positive outlook.

"What are you going to do about it, except do what you're told and wear a mask and keep safe," she said. 

As of Thursday morning, there are 277 wildfires burning in B.C. and over 3,000 firefighters and other personnel currently battling the flames. Nearly 3,400 square kilometres of B.C. has been burned by wildfire since April 1.

Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately. 

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register online with Emergency Support Services, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

With files from The Early Edition


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