Editor, The Times:
I usually don’t write to the press but I feel I just had to voice my opinion. Talk falls on deaf ears but print is there to read.
I sit here thinking about the recent event at Raft River. Having been there at the scene approximately 45 minutes after it happened, I was able to see the vehicles involved and the tank off the side of the road. I knew it was a toxic spill. No one seemed to know what to do other than the RCMP and the Fire Department. They were able to move the public back and secure the immediate area, but were sadly short-staffed and unable to offer much assistance to the growing crowd of travelers.
We were informed that there would be an approximate one to two hour time delay before the road would be reopened to traffic.
My experience with three similar situations in the past told me that we would probably be looking at a much longer wait. Three important things I’ve learned in these types of situations are: get in and assess the situation; use resources at hand; and secure the area. I didn’t see people being warned that it was a toxic spill and that it could be dangerous to the public’s health. Nor did I see people being told to move back and remain in their vehicles because of the potential health hazards. I left the area and returned home to Vavenby.
About an hour and a half later, Vavenby became a zoo with travelers jamming the road into town and wanting to know how to get to Clearwater, Barriere, and other points south. Some knew about the road through Adams Lake but were unsure of how to make the detour through that area. Citizens of Vavenby and part of our disaster team quickly moved into action to find out what kind of shape the roads through that area were.
Many thanks go to the young couple that had just come down from the lake and were able to pass along important road condition information as well as escort a convoy of about 15 vehicles through the area.
We sent several volunteers to spot and direct traffic away from taking wrong turns down side roads in the community and along the detour route. They were able to provide drivers with important information in regards to the switchbacks along the way, at what kilometer to make what were always right turns on the road and to take their time and to travel slowly. Everyone we informed seemed pleased that there were caring people available to get them pointed in the right direction and safely on their way.
As the store was getting swamped with drivers needing extra fuel to travel with, our next problem was to provide all the people with what they needed without running out and stranding anyone. We rationed the fuel to 25 liters per vehicle, enough to make it through to Barriere, and people were very cooperative.
Several travelers with campers requested overnight lodging and we sent them up to the Vavenby Community Hall grounds. It has a “No Camping” policy in place and enforced by the TNRD, but to them I say “Poppycock” and sent them anyway.
Emergencies are just that, emergencies. I estimate that we got 250 to 300 cars, trucks, RVs, tractor-trailers, tour buses, etc. safely moving through the area without incident.
We were informed not to send people on that route over the mountain and to that I say once again, poppycock.
I understand that the TNRD director of our area and the mayor of Clearwater had an emergency training exercise last week. Although I believe it went well, I don’t think that it included how to respond to all the needs of the small, outlying communities that would be burdened with the heavy traffic flow as drivers were unable to proceed through Clearwater and would naturally look for alternate routes just outside of the Clearwater area, as was the case this last Sunday when the highway was closed for approximately 14 hours. I think that the small towns outside the town of Clearwater could and should be informed when such an emergency arises that will quite likely affect their community. The town of Vavenby was informed when crowds of confused travelers showed up looking for help and direction.
There isn’t a designated disaster escape route in our area, let alone signs to point the way to keep people on the right course. We in Vavenby have been trying for six years now to form a disaster response and evacuation team but have run into so much red tape as to get funding for signs, etc.
Hey people, get out of your sandboxes, leave your ivory tower and get out in the country. Smell the flowers and talk to the people in the small towns and see what needs to be done to ensure the safety of its citizens and its guests before disasters happen and no one knows what to do or where to go. There is enough confusion going on when situations hit. That is not the time to begin to plan disaster response. The time is now.
I think Clearwater and all its small outlying communities need to cooperate and work together. I think there needs to be better communication of information between all of the communities that are mutually affected by emergency situations. Disasters are easier to deal with when clear, informative, open communication is available between everyone concerned.
I would personally like to thank all the people in Vavenby who quickly moved into action to derail what was becoming quite a problem for our small community and its visitors last Sunday. Thank you to Debbie Barrett and her staff at Vavenby General Store for keeping the gas and food flowing and for staying open late to assist all the stranded travelers.
Some of the powers that be may not like what I have written. So be it.
Joe Short, coordinator
Vavenby Emergency Response Team