Hurricanes across U.S. Gulf Coast states and earthquakes in Asia have put an international spotlight on the plight of victims and rescuers coping with natural disasters. Closer to home, Canadians recall images of tired firefighters battling flames across the Okanagan Valley in B.C.’s interior during the summer of 2003 in a heroic effort to save homes and communities. A new study by UBC Okanagan’s School of Nursing reveals the critical and unseen role played by those who led the health care response to the fire.
Drawing on personal and professional experiences of 20 people who worked through the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Fire, the study highlights key conclusions intended to help communities across Canada and the world better prepare for natural disasters.
“The stories were unique to the Okanagan Mountain Fire, but they will resonate in the experiences of health care organizers elsewhere,” says Penny Cash, UBC Okanagan Associate Professor and principal investigator on Health, Safety and Workload Challenges of the Okanagan Mountain Fire 2003.
“We have attempted to make these stories visible and helpful to communities working on their disaster preparedness or those who are in the process of recovery,” Cash says. “The study is broad enough for any organization to use.”
Sparked by a lightning strike, wildfire advanced across the Central Okanagan’s forested southern slopes in August 2003, destroying 238 homes and forcing 30,000 people from threatened neighbourhoods. It was B.C.’s largest-ever evacuation and the second largest evacuation in Canadian history.
Researchers reviewed news reports and other documentation of the firestorm, and while they found information about many aspects of the front-line emergency response, the health care side of the story wasn’t apparent.
Interviewed by the research team, organizers from health and community services and other sectors described facing awesome pressures responding to the health care needs of many thousands of evacuees. Those professional challenges were piling upon personal situations as they and their families confronted the fire as well.
“The health care organizers worked endlessly for their community,” says co-investigator Donna Kurtz, Associate Professor at UBC Okanagan. “Most of the work they did was invisible yet without their concern for the welfare of the community, the outcome of the fire may not have been as positive.”
“It’s a small community, and we saw everybody involved in one way or another,” says Cash. “The health care organizers worked with other agencies in leading response it worked brilliantly because they had the knowledge and the connections to make it work.”
“Their roles in the acute stage were absolutely instrumental in making things happen,” says Susan Van Den Tillart, Assistant Professor and co-investigator on the research team. “They were not only providing services throughout the crisis, they were personally impacted by the fire. It didn’t end for them.”
The research team has dedicated the study to the participating health care organizers. “The legacy of the challenges and success of your work is deeply reflected in the community’s healing,” the team writes. “It is your courage and dedication that has made recovery possible for many people.”
The study was funded by a $23,000 grant from the Vancouver Foundation.
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