Volunteers help setup an evacuation centre in Cloverdale on Sunday. (Lance Peverly/Peace Arch News)

Wildfire evacuee surprised to find Cloverdale centre closed over long weekend

Evacuee arrives at evacuation centre to closed doors, discovers it won’t re-open until Tuesday

Cathalynn Cindy Labonte-Smith for the Cloverdale Reporter

It’s the August long weekend in B.C., and while we’re going to parties and BBQs, it’s just three more demanding, hot and smoky days for those who are fighting the wildfires throughout the province.

For wildfire evacuees, this weekend brings memories of happier times spent with family, but it also creates a struggle to get help as volunteers at evacuation centres take time off to refresh with their own families.

This is the story of one evacuee, still reeling from being stranded, who found herself locked out of the Cloverdale evacuation centre over the holiday weekend.

Earlier this summer, Jorunn Lindzen had been renting a house in Princeton while she waited to move into a rental suite in Williams Lake. But before she could make the move, evacuation orders caused by the wildfire crisis prevented her from journeying to her new home.

Instead, evacuees began to stream in to Princeton, where the local evacuation centre took in around 350 people. Stranded, Lindzen went to the evacuation centre to volunteer. “It was the only thing to do,” she said. “It gave me a sense of control.”

On her first shift, she spent 16 hours on the phone bank answering questions.

“It felt like three days,” she said. There were no computers – everything was done manually, so there were long waits for evacuees. The mandates were constantly changing. “It was very stressful,” she recounted.

Lindzen, who suffers from asthma, eventually made the decision to go to Langley to stay with family, where she thought the air would be a bit better.

The next day on Saturday, August 8, Lindzen went to the Cloverdale evacuation centre, located at the Cloverdale fairgrounds, to inquire about hours of operation so that she could make sure she could extend her status as an evacuee. When she got there, the centre was closed and there was a sign on the door with a phone number for Emergency Social Services.

In a post to social media, Lindzen said that she was surprised to find that both the Cloverdale and Chilliwack centres – the two centres serving the Lower Mainland – would be closed until 8 a.m. on Tuesday, August 8.

She continued, “The supervisor further advised me that this has always been their mandate and that she had not seen anything in regard to continued support for health-related conditions. This means that no one south of Kamloops will get any support. My mouth is literally hanging on the floor. How do we fix this? Where or to whom do we go?”

Lindzen said that she would be fine, but that she was “very agitated.”

“Not as much for myself, [but on behalf of] anyone else who might show up with no place to go… I just can’t believe this. The woman said… not many people were coming through there anyway.”

The City of Surrey confirmed that the continued low numbers of registrants at the Surrey centre were the reason why it closed for the long weekend, in order to give staff and volunteers a few days off.

The closings were announced on the City of Surrey Emergency Social Services website and were posted at the centre before the long weekend, as well as the new hours of operation. Effective August 3, the centre will be open from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Those who need to access ESS are advised to call the Cloverdale Evacuation Centre at 604-598-7960.

“I don’t blame them [for closing],” said Lindzen. As a volunteer herself, she knows that the volunteers at the centre are working long hours.

Instead, she blames the “lack of systems” in place.

“I am not in a dire situation but others could be,” she said.

“Now, I am just flaming mad that people can be just dropped.”

The Cloverdale Arena reception centre, located at 6090 176 Street, will also be closed on August 13, 20 and 27.

Cathalynn Cindy Labonte-Smith is a freelance writer and blogger from Gibsons, B.C.