THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward A wild fire rips through the forest 16 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, Alta., on highway 63 in May 2016.

Ft. McMurray anniversary offers lessons for emergency preparedness

Holly Hashimi didn’t expect her home and all her possessions to be lost in a fire …

Emergency Preparedness Week runs from May 7­ to 13, and a recent poll says the vast majority of British Columbians aren’t ready.

One Kelowna woman shares her story about surviving the Ft. McMurray fires and what she wishes she’d kept in mind as the crisis unfolded.

This time last year, Holly and Behram Hashimi were on the road with their two dogs, a cat and an armful of personal items.

It wasn’t a for a cozy road trip. They were escaping an inferno that had swallowed their home, all the possessions they couldn’t carry and their sense of security.

The Hashimis, who are from Kelowna but had relocated to Ft. McMurray for work, had already stopped in at the Albion Village emergency camp that had been set up to house all those who had lost their homes and Holly convinced her husband to double back to Bon Accord, the city where her friend lived.

“We left and drove through what I think an apocalypse would really look like—fire smouldering on the sides of the road, abandoned cars facing the wrong way on the side of the highway,” she said.

Street lights were out, the visibility was poor and there were no other people around.

“We had half a tank of gas to get us from camp to a gas station—we stopped every time we saw an RCMP vehicle to ask if they had gas, but no one had any,” she said.

They made it to Marianna lakes—around 106 km from Ft. McMurray—with just under a quarter tank and got their first taste of the generosity and kindness that emerged often in the aftermath.

“A couple of men had jerry-cans, snacks, pet food and water. I could have cried. They gave us half a tank of gas and refused cash we offered,” she said.

Friends of theirs— some Holly only knew from the internet pet owner groups— banded together and sent money.

“Friends of friends gave us money, people we’d never met sent us money and items we would need,” she said. “We were so grateful at the kindness that was displayed to us.”

The systems that were thrown into place and the kindness displayed alleviated some of the needs that arose as the crisis unfolded.

The Hashimis, like 93 per cent of British Columbians recently polled by Ipsos Reid for Emergency Preparedness Week, weren’t “emergency ready.”

“It is not enough for people to purchase a 72-hour emergency kit, to be really ready for any emergency, one needs to have an emergency plan, a kit of supplies, be trained to administer first aid and continue to maintain their supplies and skills for an emergency,” said Karen MacPherson, CEO of St. John Ambulance British Columbia and Yukon.

They recommend that everyone in B.C. create a plan, build a kit, train in First Aid, and maintain their skills and supplies.

Holly also sees a longer view for preparedness.

“Make a list of things you would want if it was the last time you would see your home,” she said. “As I was standing in my house my mind went blank and I couldn’t figure out what to take. I never actually thought the house was going to burn. Pre-pack the stuff that would be more time-consuming to take with you.”

Some things she and her husband wish they had taken but didn’t included phone chargers, ibuprofen and other medications. Important paperwork, like passports and insurance papers should be accessible.

“Now I just load everything onto Google Docs; the most important thing was our pets so make sure you have a plan with someone nearby in case you can’t get home,” she said. “I heard a few stories of people who couldn’t get home and lost their beloved animals.”

Those documents helped her get a jump on what needed to be done.

“The first phone call I made when I arrived at camp after evacuation was to our insurance company,” she said. “Prior to this event we didn’t even know what our coverage was. I wasn’t 100 per cent sure if the house had burned down…but I wanted to know if we had fire coverage.”

She did, and after jumping through all the hoops she was paid out in full by her insurer. Not everybody has the same experience.

“I’ve seen a lot of people treated horribly by their insurers. They’ve been undercut, under paid out and have had to fight the whole way,” she said.

“I couldn’t imagine having to deal with that on top of the additional emotional strain. I don’t know if it was because we were under-insured, but we were paid out in full by August. Some people still haven’t been paid out—although I do know some people are still working away on their contents list. Since we didn’t have adequate coverage, it was easy to make a list that exceeded what we were due.”

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