On July 7th, 2017, BC was officially declared to be in a state of emergency. Wildfires had begun the day before, and in just 24 hours 140 fires were blazing in the BC interior.
Many communities, including Williams Lake, were put on evacuation alert, meaning "be ready to leave within the hour."
By the time a full evacuation was declared on July 15th, nearly half of Williams Lake residents had already left due to the increasing levels of smoke.
"The kidney care team at Williams Lake really came together under pressure," says Megan Bowers, a Williams Lake nurse. "One staff member emerged as a natural leader, and the team really took care of one-another and embraced a positive and determined attitude."
Incredibly, full levels of care were maintained throughout the wildlife crisis and not one dialysis run was missed. Relocating to Prince George, the Williams Lake kidney care team moved in to a clinic area attached to the hospital's hemodialysis unit, an area that quickly became known as "little Williams Lake."
"Patients and staff from Williams Lake were relieved to be able to stay together as a unit," explains Erika, a nurse from Williams Lake. It was common ground in an environment that in some ways felt foreign. The Prince George unit uses different dialysis machines, and as a different health authority, slightly different processes. "It's fair to say the team faced a steep learning curve, but they acted seamlessly as a team and never wavered in their quality of care and focus on their patients" said Paula Hann, Regional Renal Director of Interior Health.
Williams Lake staff have expressed gratitude for the support and kindness they received while working in Prince George. In the hemo unit, they always had a local staff member with them to answer questions, and outside of the unit, doctors and nurses from Prince George helped out by providing lunches and offering to do things like laundry. "They welcomed us with open arms," said Megan.
In turn, Prince George staff praised the Williams Lake team for their strength under pressure. One of many notes sent from Prince George to Williams Lake after the fires read: "In the face of fear, the unknown and worry, you showed us what teamwork, support and dedication meant." Richard, a patient from Williams Lake echoed their praises, saying he was impressed by how efficient the transition was to Prince George – "When we got to PG…it was phenomenal how they looked after us."
In total, Williams Lake staff and patients were away from home for five weeks, and some staff were separated from family. Many worried about what they would be going home to, and if their homes would be safe. One nurse said it was surreal to return home and see burnt land only minutes away from her house. "We were lucky," said Megan.
The record-breaking 2017 wildfires highlighted the need for emergency preparation. During the month of May, BCPRA and the health authorities are working to raise awareness about individual, renal program and provincial disaster planning.