(Humanity) is not imprisoned by habit. Great changes in (us) can be wrought by crisis – once that crisis can be recognized and understood.
— Norman Cousins
Glimpsing backwards to discover patterns of adaption
For those of us who have gone through hardships in the past, this week we woke up once again to the need for radical mutual care. It made me reflect on the day we moved in when a neighbour walked down the driveway with a jar of homemade plum jam. She became a life long friend. Being welcomed home by a neighbour is one of the best feelings in the world. Importantly, coming from away we were being carefully skilled on community living. Salt Spring rural life has been good that way.
Twenty years later our home is filled with 26 nervous neighbours eager to discuss the recent fire and our ability to respond. Three days after the Beaver Point Rd fire threatened to turn much of what we love to ash we gathered to determine how our chapter of the Emergency Pod system worked -and needs work. We’d like to share some of what we learned. We have many questions and concerns.
As one neighbour wrote this morning, “(these) efforts today may help prevent future tragedies.”
What happened; what didn’t happen
Smoke was spotted, then reported by at least three people including a farmer about to hay their field at 3:15 pm Friday August 3rd. Within twenty minutes 20 firefighters and Forest Rangers serendipitously conducting a training exercise down the road at Ruckle Park arrived. None of us heard sirens.
Mark, my husband, our local Emergency POD captain, while often home was away at work. Our landline was also uncharacteristically offline.
After years of drought this around-the-corner 2-hectare fire just served us our Wake Up Call. Knew it was coming; here it is. If the wind had blown as powerfully as it had the previous two days I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, nor you reading it. Beaver Point Road would have been closed off and an at-capacity campground of visitors having much less emergency information than the hundreds of south end residences would have needed find an escape route.
In an emergency it is time to act not try to think. We’re upset and channelling our fears into getting organized. It was only after the all-clear came my levelheaded responses turned to high agitation. Post-event adrenal fatigue combined with my own under-par preparation lead to some high pitch moments when Mark finally got home.
Coordinated preparation is our best survival strategy
As POD Captain Mark’s closed-down computer received two messages from the stellar Emergency POD response coordination team:
Friday, August 3rd, 3:57 pm: “Please be advised that there is smoke in the 950 block of Beaver Point Road near Demetri Way. SSI Fire/Rescue in onsite checking for a fire. Please let your neighbours know there may be possible delays until the issue is resolved. Please slow down as you approach the area. Thank you, Laurel Hanley. Salt Spring Deputy Emergency Coordinator.”
6:41 pm: “Please be advised that the SSI Fire/Rescue has told us that the brushfire in your area is now contained and there is no threat to residence, at this time. Please pass along to your residence. Thank you, Laurel for Elizabeth Zook.”
We quickly realized we all need to know how to participate in chains of communication.
At 5:30 pm I picked up five calls from neighbours informing, questioning and updating, finally suggesting an all clear. I decided to act ‘as if’ and called ten other neighbours asking them to call the people closest to them. I emailed reassuring updates to the people I had addresses for –but most of these were on Mark’s computer. In the adrenaline rush I didn’t think to use his computer.
The fact is most of us did not have fellow neighbour’s contact information. Our newest neighbour knocked on doors. We reminded ourselves to have grab-and-go bags ready. Less than half of us had an emergency kit at hand.
At this point, we were told that a brush fire was contained. This was mostly true. Over the course of 6 hours 5000 gallons of Weston Lake water pumped up hill from the community beloved home of Katya Mycyk and Steve Forbes. Forbes, a talented blacksmith by trade, wearing only shorts and t-shirt bushwhacked up to a very difficult site alongside as he described, “very sharp, hardworking emergency responders. They have been here every day since and have pumped another 1000 gallons up hill to insure underground roots systems are not still burning.”
Bless our emergency responders! May we get organized enough to discover ourselves worthy of the risks you take on our behalf. Steve you also deserve a few bottles of Scotch Whisky.
Our region-to-person-and-back response systems need refining. We discovered that at least 12 people (all of whom we had little to no regular contact within half a kilometre of each other’s homes) were not on the emergency list. Scary.
Here’s the rub, it was mostly renters who were not on the list. No excuse holds up to people’s lives and welfare. To be benevolently blunt, fires care little for privacy, property value, social stratification or opinion. Divided cultural and class systems put our island community at risk. Neighbourhood tiffs put our lives at risk. Bruised egos can be mended. Ideologies can find commonalities. Shared susceptibility can evolve into shared accountability. We can be and do better.
Consider that crisis also equals opportunity. What and how?
- Build on existing emergency models and past successes (i.e. pod-lucks. Find your POD. Learn from other PODS)
- Co-create pleasure through community action & education
- Prepare for uncertain futures by repairing past relationships
- Return to our community roots. Get involved to grow or deepen them
- Practice how to respond by collectively participating in significant social determinant healthcare issues (i.e. lack of a laundromat, the homing crisis) applying Emergency Response methods
- Divert outsourced resources back to the island & diversify investments to include new participants in shifting economic structures (i.e. create our own SSI-WaterB&B where the $ are invested into local jobs and housing projects)
This, our community’s labour of love: let’s be one another’s first responders. The benefits of growing sustainable relationships, our social ecology, includes living up to and improving upon our now commodified SSI reputation. Let’s base the health of our local economy on quality of care.
As experts of our own lived experience we need to discover how to coordinate our efforts with a diverse spectrum of class, generational and cultural representatives. We were thrilled to discover in our POD meeting that the people across the room have skills, resources and strategies we need.
On Sunday, August 5th we hosted our first pod-luck in a decade. Some of us recalled with a chortle how in 1999 we came together to prepare for Y2K. “Just to be safe,” was our motto. This week our home was packed once again. With tea, coffee and fresh blueberry crisp in hand we sat down and introduced ourselves. Some of us settlers have lived here since 1974, one new friend moved across the road five days ago. All visibly shaken, we could see shoulders drop by an inch within ten minutes of gathering. Steve and Katya provided a first hand knowledge of what happened. We collected our names, home and email addresses, emergency contact information, identified potential resources and skills. We discovered we have a former gulf island fire chief in our midst. Gary Holman, our former (and hopefully future) CRD director who helped get the POD system on the island was on hand. In our POD we have old time farmers; a single mom of three who is also trained in search and rescue; crisis counsellors; people with First Aid; health and healing professionals; and experts of local flora, fauna. We learned how broom, moss and salal act as fire accelerators because of their volatile oils. We have four tractors if needed. Several ponds.
We were reminded of the advice of local Indigenous elders who have said, “When the storm comes tie your canoes together.”
Along with educating ourselves about exit routes, pet and farm animal protocols and fire proofing the property (i.e. not having wood stacked beside the house) other smart suggestions included putting copies of important documents in the grab-and-go bags, and consider keeping originals in the freezer. We reminded each other to not burn toilet paper in the wood stove. Also, for those less agile we wondered if a smaller overnight backpack is a less cumbersome choice during a fire than a pre-labeled large suitcase better for earthquake evacuation).
I’m giving up our gas mower (stored in an old wood shed) for a cordless Toro electric mower.
This week’s actions include making sure we all have one another’s confidential contact information. We’re sharing on line resources. We’ll set up a designated Google document for quick access. We will advocate for better cell reception in our valley. We discovered that while we may have differing physical, technological and community skill capacities -between us we have an exceptional level of skills and abilities.
We were (re)discovering what living in community means. Our next brunch pod-luck date is being set. Photocopies of all emergency information will be distributed within the next few days. We’ve decided to have two co-captains and a back up alternative in our area.
We also asked, “What if all our technology breaks down?” We’re suggesting meeting with pod-captains to the east & west, north & south of our own pod to set up communication lines. People-powered, old school, community-locating systems are still needed.
At our core, we all need reassurance. Early adaptors and good leadership recognize signs of crisis. We’re blessed with generations of hardworking, smart people on this island. We encourage the wider emergency system help us immediately organize larger preparedness meetings at our local hubs such as at Beaver Point Hall. We request these beloved hall and school boards helps us gather by scheduling regular bi-annual meet-ups. We have much to talk about and do. Like quality food, growing sustainable relationships is our best trust& confidence building strategy. We need faith in one another. Crisis brings out the best in us. We’re proud of our neighbours. We’re wildly in love with this land we all steward and share. Preparing for the worst we’re determined to be here for one another along the way. By pulling together love emerges. We have each other’s backs. We’re committed to not leaving anyone behind. We have work to do to live up to that commitment.
The phone just rang. Our newest neighbour Bryan has informed us that the smoke in the valley is from a new 20-hectare fire in Nanaimo. Mark has grabbed the phone and his computer….
Robert Birch lives in the south-end. For the past three decades he has worked as an arts-based community health advocate and researcher of adaptive socio-cultural systems. Robert misses our annual spring bean dinners at Beaver Point Hall and seeks help doing something about it. This article, while speaking about, does not assume to speak for his neighbourhood POD.
1. To find out what POD you are in contact: Laurel Hansen or Elizabeth Zook Salt Spring Island Emergency Program 250-537-1220
2. You can register with the Salt Spring Island Electoral Area Public Alert Notification System.
3. For those on Facebook you can ‘like’ or ‘follow’ the Saltspring Fire Department, There is a button to prioritize it to come up first on your FB newsfeed.
4. See national smoke maps
5. For POD info check out. Lots of good information here for Grab-n-Go Kits.
Note: An earlier version of this article has also been published in the Gulf Island Driftwood.