Following a record breaking wildfire season in the Cariboo and Thompson-Nicola Regional Districts in 2017, the United Way provided community mental health support by developing a wildfire recovery team with representation from the four most populated areas affected that successfully increased awareness of the mental health impacts of wildfire disasters, reduced silos between community organizations, fostered community through events and workshops, and integrated mental health into future emergency planning. In 2017 and 2018, B.C. experienced recordbreaking wildfire seasons. Both years resulted in a Provincial State of Emergency, over $600 million in costs, and tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes. In the Cariboo and Thompson‐Nicola regional districts a total of 192 residential structures and 252 others buildings, for a total of 444 structures, were destroyed. While no lives were lost, the fires had severe and enduring impacts on the mental health and well-being of the involved communities and emergency personnel. Following the 2017 wildfires, United Way Thompson Nicola Cariboo worked with a range of community partners to both form and build on pre-existing mental health working groups. This leadership by the United Way led to the development of a wildfire recovery team, which included Community Wellness Managers (CWMs) that each served a specific region. The wildfire recovery team placed emphasis on emergency management approaches that were inclusive of all community members and tended to a range of mental health and wellbeing needs. While there remain some long-term impacts of the 2017 fire season, the United Way’s efforts to identify and respond to community mental health needs was key to preventing further harm and lessons learned will used to inform future emergency management approaches.
Following the 2017 wildfires, United Way Thompson Nicola Cariboo worked with a range of community partners to both form and build on pre-existing mental health working groups (MHWGs) in Ashcroft, 100 Mile House, Quesnel, and Williams Lake. Working group membership included: the Canadian Mental Health Association, local school districts, BC Ministries, service agencies, the First Nations Health Authority, Interior Health, BC Emergency Health Services, Indigenous leadership, the BC Nurses Union, and the Red Cross. The aim of the working groups was to allow community members to identify service needs and support sustainable recovery and long-term solutions. This leadership by the United Way led to the development of a wildfire recovery team, which included Community Wellness Managers (CWMs) that each served a specific region. The wildfire recovery team placed emphasis on emergency management approaches that were inclusive of all community members and tended to a range of needs, including mental health and wellbeing.
After the development of the wildfire recovery team, CWM’s implemented a number of mental and social health measures for community measures, including:
- Identify psychosocial impacts of the wildfires and vulnerable population
- Partner with mental health working groups and local organizations to identify service gaps and duplication
- Host wellness seminars for impacted frontline workers and community members
- Organize and facilitate wildfire anniversary events to allow communities to decompress and reflect
- Promote existing mental health supports (Kids Help Phone, Talk in Tough Times program, etc); and
- Offer Psychological First Aid and other relevant training certifications for service providers.
Training opportunities were provided and played a vital role in building community resilience. “Training the trainer” certifications included Mental Health and Psychosocial First Aid, Cultural Safety, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills, Critical Incident Stress Management, and Crisis Intervention. Community events and engagements were organized and were critical for providing an opportunity for reconnection and healing as well as to recognize and celebrate post fire recovery efforts. In addition to the work by the United Way, various levels of government and non‐government organizations (NGOs) mounted recovery efforts to help mitigate harmful effects. More than $1 billion was spent by government and NGO’s on fighting the fires (54%), response efforts (31%) and business support (5%). The emergency response to the 2017 wildfire season was unprecedented, given the significant area burned and the number of people and communities affected. Off‐road vehicle prohibitions were implemented in the Cariboo, Kamloops and Southeast Fire Centres. Full backcountry closures were implemented in the Cariboo Fire Centre and Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Districts. Emergency evacuation centres had to be set up in numerous areas of the province to house and provide for the large number of evacuees, farm animals and pets.
The work of the CWMs and MHWGs were successful in increasing awareness of the mental health impacts of wildfire disasters, reducing silos between community organizations, and fostering community through events and workshops. In the long-term, the CWMs also aimed to integrate mental health into future emergency planning and share their findings with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
In 2021, United Way TNC amalgamated with 5 other United Ways to become United Way BC. Understanding the ongoing effects of climate risks and shifting weather patterns, such as the 2020 heat dome, is being added to the strategic plan refresh as United Way BC learns the role they have to play in supporting communities across BC.