A Red Cross worker speaks to an evacuee in Kamloops. Image credit: Greg Sabatino

UNDER EVACUATION: The health impacts on evacuees

Evacuees are stressed and emotional while also resilient and strong

One in a ten-part series showcasing the volunteerism, community and resilience surrounding those evacuated due to the wildfires engulfing parts of the B.C. Interior.

While the majority of British Columbia views the impact and destruction of the wildfires from a distance, tens of thousands of B.C. residents are experiencing it first hand.

From last-minute evacuations to candling trees, roaring flames and property lost, the physical and mental impact of this year wildfire season has just begun.

As the province heads into the third week of what is expected to be a long and destructive wildfire season, a UBC professor shared his thoughts on the psychological impact of wildfires.

“Most people cope well with losses, although they may experience some degree of distress such as anxiety, depression or sleep disturbance,” explained Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry who specializes in anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The impact varies according to a range of complex factors including the nature of the loss, the degree of impact and disruption on their lives, the aftermath, the person’s age and their level of psychological adjustment. Grieving the loss of one’s cherished possessions is a natural psychological reaction, although most people are able to move on with their lives.”

Related: Firefighters in Williams Lake threatened with gun

The impact is not felt alone by those losing their homes, it is also felt by the first responders trying to get the upper hand on these destructive blazes.

“Firefighters, just like police officers and military personnel, are at greater risk of developing PTSD, compared to the general population,” said Taylor. “This is mainly because if you work in a dangerous profession then your odds are increased of being exposed to traumatic events. Fatigue and emotional burnout are also important concerns, especially for those who have been working long, dangerous shifts fighting forest fires.

“It is important for firefighters to be mindful of their mental health; if they are experiencing significant anxiety, depression, irritability or anger, then they may need to take some time to attend to their mental health.”

Related: Riske Creek ranchers go it alone in fight against dangerous wildfire

Similar advice to that he shared for those directly impacted by fires. Taylor said evacuees should seek further mental-health assistance if they do not begin to feel better within a few weeks.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a possibility for people who perceived that their lives, or the lives of loved ones, were in acute danger. However, most people are resilient to stress and do not develop PTSD,” added Taylor.

“Substance abuse and marital or family conflict are also potential consequences of a serious stressor such as a major forest fire, especially in people who have preexisting issues.”

The professor’s points are palpable when you visit evacuation centres around the province. Evacuees have shared a range of emotions with the media, they are stressed and emotional while also resilient and strong.

Related: Evacuees sleeping in cars and tents

With that in the mind, the province has worked with local health authorities and several other organizations to bring some relief and support to evacuees.

“Evacuees and workers are dealing with high levels of stress and mental health concerns. Provincial Health Services Authority has been working with affected health authorities to support their response to the fires. This includes operating the Disaster Psychosocial Program, which has deployed volunteers to Kamloops and Prince George to assist evacuees in those centres,” explains Kate Mukasa with the B.C. Government.

“The affected health authorities also have staff at the reception centres to triage and provide assistance to evacuees – this includes mental health care.”

Organizations like St. Johns Ambulance are also working on lifting the spirits of evacuees by getting their therapy dogs on the job and by their side.

“This is the first time we have been involved in an emergency situation,” said Jillian Zielinski, dog handler of therapy dog Luna. “Normally we visit mental-health facilities or the hospital or seniors homes, so this is the first time we are able help out like this.”

Related: Dogs and cats get love from volunteers in Kamloops

Zielinski said the response and feedback was really great from evacuees who enjoyed a wagging tail and a head to scratch.

“The dogs act as emotional support dogs. They can help make you calmer, there have been studies done about how having animals around you can make you feel safe and comfortable in their presence,” explained Zielinski.

“It can get your mind off of things, you can instead focus on a smooshy face like hers.”

Related: Livestock safe, well cared for by volunteers

Community Resilience Centres have also been set up by local authorities to provide information and programs of support for wildfire evacuees.

These centres include a variety of government and non-governmental resources to support evacuees, including access to important services and programs through Service Canada, insurance advice from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, and more.

The Thompson Nicola Regional District Kamloops Resilience Centre is located at 1550 Island Park Way.

In addition to the services mentioned above, the government added that Red Cross is available to provide assistance and mental health supports to evacuees and first responders. Working closely with BC Children’s Hospital, the Kelty Youth in Residence is available to provide support, navigation of services and resources for kids and youth across BC.

Other crisis support for children or youth who may be experiencing PTSD or other crises is also available here:

  • 310-6789 (24/7, confidential support)
  • Toll free – Lower Mainland and Sunshine Coast: 1-866-661-3311
  • TTY: 1-866-872-0113

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