Hosting Wildfire Evacuees

As increasing temperatures, mild winters, and a lack of precipitation fueled ever-intensifying fire seasons in British Columbia, the City of Kamloops, a historical host community for evacuations from surrounding regions, faced increasing pressure to host an unprecedented number of evacuees in the 2017 fire season. Within the City, numerous reception centres, resiliency centres, and recovery centres were set up to support a wide spectrum of needs for the evacuees. Coordination between private sector partners, non-profits, government agencies, local First Nations, and an Emergency Support Services (ESS) team of over 60 trained volunteers enabled Kamloops to provide shelter, health care, and a spectrum of social services for an unprecedented number of evacuees. Kamloops hosted approximately 10,000 evacuees in 2017, representing nearly a 10% increase in the population. The City received great praise for their preparedness in accommodating an unprecedented influx of evacuees.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

With rising temperatures, milder winters, declining snowpack, droughts, and increasing incidence of lightning strikes, climate change is undeniably fuelling intensifying fire seasons in Western Canada. In the presence of dangerous Wildland urban interface (WUI) fires, homeowners are often forced to evacuate and temporarily relocate until they can return to their communities. For Kamloops, a centrally-located host city for wildfire evacuees, intensifying fire seasons lead to more evacuations, which in turn potentially strains Kamloops’ resources as they must accommodate for a much larger population for an extended period of time. Having historically hosted a large number of evacuees during the wildfire season of 2003 and 2009, Kamloops was no stranger to stretching resources and putting systems to the test to temporarily accommodate larger populations. However, the destruction caused by the 2017 and 2018 fire season in British Columbia was unprecedented: 65,000 people had to evacuate their homes.

Identifying Actions

Dan Sutherland, Assistant Fire Chief and Emergency Program Coordinator for the City of Kamloops, emphasized the importance of the planning phase to the success of their hosting efforts. The City of Kamloops had pre-identified reception centres and other city-owned facilities they could draw upon in the event of an influx in evacuees. The City’s GIS department provided the ESS team with floor plans that allowed the City to pre-plan the exact layout of reception centres. Schedules for all city facilities were an important part of the planning process, as they would inform evidence-based decisions as to where to open reception centres and where to place people in the event of an emergency. Such detailed planning enabled Kamloops’ remarkable preparedness when an unprecedented number of evacuees arrived in 2017.

Coordination with city council was paramount to enabling programs to prepare and respond. Mr. Sutherland emphasized the importance of working with partners, like local First Nations, service providers, and the private sector, to expand hosting capacity. One final component to the planning process was having trained volunteers on stand-by. When disaster strikes, volunteers on the ESS team must properly care for thousands of evacuees and capture data to inform recovery efforts. Having a group of trained volunteers was a crucial contributing factor to the City’s preparedness in 2017.


Kamloops’ preparedness was put to the test in 2017 when a devastating fire season brought an unprecedent number of evacuees to the City. Reception centres were used to receive the evacuees, address their immediate needs, and register them into the existing systems for individual grant and aid programs. Resiliency centres provided evacuees with a spectrum of social services, with representatives present from government agencies, not-for-profits, and the private sector to provide guidance. Finally, recovery centres served an important function by providing longer term caseworks and psychological support to evacuees in need of assistance.

The initial ESS team of 60 trained volunteers acted as initial responders and trained hundreds of subsequent volunteers that worked in the reception centres. The ESS team’s year-round work of liaising with local suppliers (such as commercial lodging and restaurants), determining bed counts in the city, and engaging the private sector throughout the planning process was fundamental to successful implementation when Kamloops had to adapt to unprecedented circumstances.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

During the 2017 fire season, an unprecedented 10,000 evacuees were hosted and accommodated in Kamloops, representing almost 10% of Kamloops entire population. Kamloops received praise for their preparedness and flexibility to utilize numerous space such as motels, hotels, university residences, and arenas to temporarily accommodate thousands of evacuees. The City went a step beyond simply offering shelter – they provided social services, free bus passes, and free access to recreation facilities and pools in the areas, resulting in a much-needed morale boost for the evacuees. An extraordinary positive outcome of the implementation was the cooperation of First Nations groups in the area. The Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nations opened their Pow Wow grounds to an estimated 1,000 evacuees. Private businesses contributed to providing free or discounted goods and services to evacuees. The meaningful relationships the city of Kamloops fostered with these various stakeholders benefited thousands of individuals in times of crisis and created a foundation for mutually-beneficial collaboration in the future.

According to Mr. Sutherland, the Emergency Program Coordinator, one of the biggest lessons learned from hosting wildfire evacuees in 2017 was the essentiality of having designated personnel from the evacuating communities present in the host community to support evacuees, inform operations, and ease the transition. “The best way to keep evacuees from affected communities informed is to allow them to hear from their communities’ own representation. This allows residents to feel like they are getting first-hand information and gives them a sense of connectivity to their local government.”

Next Steps

The unprecedented influx in evacuees in 2017 put systems to the test and taught the City valuable lessons that can be applied moving forward. Kamloops is aware of the importance of planning, coordinating with organizations in the community, providing accommodation and services to evacuees, and including representation from evacuees’ communities to ease the transition and make for a successful hosting effort.