Last week when the flames of the McDougall Creek wildfire jumped Okanagan Lake, UBC Okanagan’s Robyn Boffy sprang into action.
In her previous life as an RCMP officer, Boffy executed a tabletop simulation—almost exactly 10 years to the date—with police and fire officials about a potential fire in the Clifton area. Suddenly, late that night, the McDougall Creek wildfire brought that exercise vividly to life, with embers landing in Clifton and sparking a second massive fire in the Kelowna region.
Boffy—now the campus Community Safety Manager—knew exactly what could happen with the fire and where it could spread. And she knew the result might not be good.
Within half an hour, UBCO’s security managers—Boffy along with Troy Campbell and Doug Hufsmith—arrived on campus to observe the fire activity. From a parking lot at the edge of campus, the trio watched the fire descend the hill towards Glenmore landfill and continue to inch closer to UBC Okanagan.
“Hand-sized pieces of branches and bark were falling all over campus, so we grabbed our water tanks in case there were spot fires we needed to tackle,” explains Boffy. “We’ve been patrolling campus for days because the falling debris has been relentless.”
Since that first night of uncertainty, the Campus Security team has been a constant 24/7 source of support for the entire campus community, explains Shelley Kayfish, Director of Campus Operations and Risk Management at UBCO.
Whether it’s providing information on how to safely travel to Vernon or Kamloops to escape the flames, answering general questions about evacuations and left-behind items, or speaking with other university departments to understand how to keep the campus afloat, the team hasn’t left UBC Okanagan since the start of the fire.
“This is despite the fact that many members of the team are first responders in other capacities and have been working double shifts by helping to support local fire departments or assist the Central Okanagan Search and Rescue that was carrying out evacuation orders notices, then coming to campus to ensure security and safety,” explains Kayfish, who was on scene even though she and her family had been evacuated. “Even campus dispatchers—who have experienced their own harrowing evacuations—have been working 12-hour shifts to support callers ranging from students to on-campus accommodation guests.”
During this time, they have also supported the many different fire departments and the more than 500 firefighters housed on campus to ensure each one of them is comfortable and safe.
“While students, faculty and staff evacuated campus with help from First Transit, we assisted the RCMP in clearing the academic and administration buildings. That meant walking into every single room and space on campus to ensure people were evacuated. We even secured unlocked properties in the residence area, since a lot of people left in a hurry and didn’t shut their doors.”
Working at the Kelowna RCMP Detachment’s command room, Insp. Beth McAndie had heard the Glenmore landfill was burning and knew the UBCO was in the line of fire. She quickly connected with people in the Emergency Operation Centre and then with Kayfish.
“We have a close collaboration with UBCO’s leadership and security team. I reached into our contacts, and through established relationships, was able to quickly notify those in positions to make critical and timely decisions to start evacuating the campus,” says Insp. McAndie. “There was a lot of teamwork taking place and everyone’s goal was to ensure the safety and security of the students.”
Campbell spent Saturday checking in on students who were evacuated to Prospera Place, reassuring them that campus was still standing and that once safe, they could return. The rest of the security team has been patrolling campus to prevent theft and vandalism, ensuring that everyone has a safe space to return to.
While the campus may be missing its usual vibrancy and life, Boffy has found one silver lining of the wildfire situation through the majestic wildlife that has flooded campus.
“They’re fleeing the fires too and there’s a sense of peace seeing them eat and rest here.”
Kayfish echoes Boffy’s sentiment of pride, knowing her staff ensure that all UBCO students, faculty and staff continue to have a safe place to teach, study, learn and work.
And Boffy knows the campus and its residents will rebound.
“Our pride for this campus is unwavering. And we are so thankful the evacuation went as smoothly as it did and the students were ready and prepared to leave,” Boffy adds. “It was nice to see everyone working together, and that’s what UBC Okanagan is all about. Supporting one another and ensuring our community’s safety is the most important thing.”