Meet the volunteers behind Kamloops’ largest online wildfire group

The volunteer-led Facebook group, Kamloops Area Fire Watch, helps organize information disseminated by BC Wildfire Services and the TNRD.
A lone bird sits on a branch surrounded by smokey skies.
Smoke from nearby fires descends on Kamloops, July 31. Kyra Grubb / The Wren

On Saturday, July 22, many residents throughout Kamloops told The Wren they were confused when they received an evacuation alert due to the Ross Moore Lake Wildfire, even though their addresses were not within the evacuation zone. 

In response to this confusion and questions from readers about emergency processes, The Wren reached out to BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) and the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) to learn more about how information is disseminated when there is a local emergency. We also spoke with some community members who are working to provide all the information in one place. 

While there may have been some confusion on July 22, Amanda Ellison, an information officer at the TNRD Emergency Operations Centre, says the district sent out a mass alert through B.C.’s emergency alert system for good reason. 

In the midst of summer, Ellison says the emergency alert was intended to help those who may be on vacation or camping in the area and aren’t registered by address with Voyant Alert, the TNRD’s preferred emergency messaging system. 

That said, Ellison says TNRD typically uses Voyant Alert and urges those who live within the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and not within another municipality or First Nations Band to register online and download the app.

Obtaining information through official channels, like BC Wildfire and Voyant Alert, is the recommended way to gather up-to-date and accurate information during an emergency, Ellison says. However, community-run groups like Kamloops Area Fire Watch can also provide residents with helpful information during an emergency.  

Kamloops Area Fire Watch

The Facebook group, Kamloops Area Fire Watch, was started by a young mother whose life was inundated by copious amounts of information during the 2021 wildfire season – the third worst season recorded in Canada, in terms of area burned and one which brought wildfires close to Kamloops.  

When the volunteer-led group of 18,000 members put out a call for administrators, Kamloops resident Jolene Tinebra immediately offered her help and has since been working to keep Kamloopsians updated during wildfire season. 

A women with curly hair smiles for a photo. She is Jolene Tinebra, an administrator for Kamloops Area Fire Watch.
Jolene Tinebra, a self proclaimed “keyboard warrior,” keeps Kamloopsians updated by helping to administrate Kamloops Area Fire Watch. Photo courtesy Jolene Tinebra.

During the 1998 Salmon Arm Wildfire, one of the worst wildfires on record in British Columbia, Tinebra says her family helped evacuate livestock, which instilled in her a sense of responsibility for her neighbours that has stood the test of time.

“As a family, we worked with other volunteers 24/7 to get those animals to safety… looking back, that’s where I realized we’re stronger when we work together and as neighbours, we can rely on one another in times of need,” she says. “It’s all for one and one for all in times of crises.”

When wildfires are reported near Kamloops, Tinebra and other admins work as quickly as possible to compile, organize and vet information posted to the Facebook page. That way, members don’t have to sort through updates posted on different apps or shared through various channels.

To assuage concerns about misinformation, Tinebra assures The Wren the group does not allow speculation or fear-mongering. 

“What we do, though, is essentially pull official information from various channels and organize it all in one place so it’s easy for people to gain an understanding of what’s really going on.” 

In addition to keeping information on the site apolitical, group member Kim Latrace-Friedel says the group also encourages users to use reputable and official sources like BC Wildfire to stay informed.

“It doesn’t absolve users of personal responsibility,” she told The Wren. “I respect that and appreciate the site.”

On July 22, when evacuation alerts were issued by the TNRD, first through B.C.’s emergency alert system and then through Voyant Alert, Tinebra says she was in the middle of putting her children to bed.

At that point, she stopped what she was doing and rushed to get all the relevant information up on the page. She says Kamloops Area Fire Watch beat TNRD to the punch in terms of informing the general public, not just those whose addresses were within the evacuation alert zone.

Tinebra told The Wren it can sometimes feel like there’s a time-gap in getting information out during emergencies.

Official processes and procedures

While Ellison says the TNRD moves with a sense of urgency to get information to the public, there are also processes in place that prioritize getting confirmed information regarding wildfires from BCWS to TNRD’s website, then to socials, followed by a Voyant Alert. 

“We go about things this way so when we point to Voyant via social media, the evacuation alerts and orders already exist and are up on the website so that when we send out the Voyant Alert, people can find it and more information concerning it online,” Ellison explains. 

After TNRD receives recommendations from BCWS, they compile information on mapping, properties, roads and egresses to coordinate how to issue the evacuation alert or order in a way that makes sense. After they’ve generated maps and address points, they have to be signed off by elected officials prior to sending that information live on the web system. 

These processes, while time-consuming, also ensure the best and most accurate information is being disseminated to the public. However, Ellison says Kamloopsians should be aware that TNRD does not post information about wildfires on any of their channels. They only share information related to evacuation alerts, orders or local states of emergencies. 

“We’re not managing the fire,” she explains. “We’re managing the people, resources and services in the area.”

For specific information about wildfires, Kamloopsians should turn to BC Wildfire Service’s website. Like TNRD, BC Wildfire works quickly to keep the public updated, says Melanie Bibeau, a Fire Information Officer. 

“In terms of how long it takes to get information up on our channels, it’s dependent on the fire and what kind of action is being taken,” Bibeau explains. “As soon as reports are in and they’re up on our dispatch map, that information automatically goes up on our website and on our app.”

Bibeau – like Ellison – suggests residents rely on BC Wildfire’s website, which has been updated in recent years to include as much information as possible, all in one place. While the app is convenient, she says the website is sometimes easier to navigate. 

Residents can also call BCWS’s media and information line, which is staffed with real people who are able to answer questions about the fire’s size, location and status, Bibeau says. 

“Sometimes when you’re in a stressful situation, especially for people who have been evacuated, for example, being able to talk to an actual person is really helpful,” Bibeau explains. 

While both Bibeau and Ellison agree that groups like Kamloops Area Fire Watch are valuable in times of need, they urge Kamloopsians to cross-check information posted there with the information provided through official channels. 

“Any group that’s promoting the proper information is valuable. The more we can get the word out, the better, but I do think it’s really important we trust the source. We just want to make sure people are going to the source for the best information first and then, of course, promote, promote, promote,” Ellison says. 

Tinebra says she and other administrators of the group plan to do just that. 

“It really boils down to being a good neighbour,” she says. “Help get that vital information to the people you love, your neighbours, the elderly, anyone you know who doesn’t have a mobile device.”

Tinebra urges folks to look out for the people within those circles and says we should try our best, if we have the capacity, to move forward with care in times of crises. 

This is made easier through the Voyant App, which has a feature that allows users to ‘pin’ the addresses of family members or friends. Pinning an address allows users to receive information related to those areas, so they can support others, especially if a loved one doesn’t use a smartphone or computer. 

“That’s what it’s all about,” Tinebra says. “Make a plan, know what your neighbours are in need of, know where they are and determine who you may need to look after. Especially if the winds change, especially if the fire comes from a different angle, then we already know what to do. That way, everybody is looked after in the community.”

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