Thousands of British Columbians were forced to leave their homes this weekend as 255 wildfires spread across the interior, pushing the government to declare a public state of emergency. Firefighters are monitoring thousands of hectares of uncontained fire caused by lightning and human activity, and hot, dry, windy conditions suggest thousands more could be displaced in coming days.
All this terrifying stuff sounds pretty familiar to the Albertans who reckoned with one of Canada's largest-ever fires last year. When "the beast" forced the evacuation of all Fort McMurray residents last May, Kristopher Mercer heard stories of evacuees suffering without food or clean socks, and decided to launch an independent relief effort. With the help of a few volunteers from Fort Mac and other parts of Alberta, Mercer set out to feed and clothe people without permission from disaster management organizations.
"People were sleeping on the ground," he told VICE of the evacuation camps north of the oil town. "We were bringing air mattresses and sleeping bags and pillows, to make people comfortable… we didn't ask anybody, we just did what we needed to do." What began as a few drivers ferrying canisters of gas and water between towns turned into a coordinated distribution effort.
Having learned a few hard lessons from the DIY relief trenches last year, Mercer has now deployed his growing team to Kamloops, where they just opened a new donation drop-off centre. The first shipment of seven tonnes of supplies just arrived Sunday evening. VICE got in touch to ask about his plan to expand "The Postmen" relief effort, and why he's not waiting for the Red Cross to take care of wildfire victims.
VICE: Can you tell me about what you've delivered so far?
Kristopher Mercer: Right now we've got donation centre set up in Kamloops, and we're in the middle of stocking that up. We're collecting donations, and then drivers are going out to outlying communities. We'll be working on that for the next couple days. As far as I know seven tonnes went down from Fort McMurray on Sunday—all donated by a Fort Mac realty company—and we also have a safety supply company donating things for first responders like gas, water, picks, and hoses. We've arranged to have those shipped down today, and they should arrive tonight.
What do people who are evacuated need most?
People I've met with really want to eat fresh food—not packaged stuff—so produce and meat is one of the biggest things for people. The other thing is socks and underwear.
Why did you call yourself "the Postmen"?
When I was first on my way to Fort McMurray, I remember that the closer I got, the darker it got. Everything was covered in mud and soot. It really looked like the end of the world. So The Postman is a post-apocalyptic movie. Postmen have a creed through rain or shine…we don't stop.
Have you learned any hard lessons from the Fort Mac disaster?
Oh yeah. We learned a lot. We started out as drivers going back and forth from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, filling up with gas and supplies. People started joining in, which kind of made a convoy of the supplies. From that point we needed places to store supplies for a few hours while we waited to fill vehicles. It was really time consuming. This time we've decided to store everything centrally in one location, and instead of transferring supplies from Alberta, we'll actually go to BC. This way we don't have to count on anybody. We can alleviate pressure on bigger organizations. There's not a lot of paperwork—families need to get food.
How is the BC disaster different from what happened in Alberta?
Well the difference is there's more fires. The Fort McMurray wildfire was the main fire, you had one road in, and one road out. We had to concentrate on that one fire, and we got a handle on it. The difference is these are all over the place—they're on the move, and everything is constantly changing, every minute.
What lessons, or bad situations from Fort Mac do you not want to repeat?
We're not here to serve other organizations, our job is to serve the people. After the last year, we didn't have support from any organizations. There was so much red tape, we just did it ourselves. In the meantime, things started to happen and we were told to shut down, to stay out of it. They said don't deliver to anything north of the oil patch. I got really got tired of that. I told everybody, we're not here to serve just one community, we're serving all of Alberta. I don't want to bad mouth bigger organizations, they do great work and I'm not going to stop them or go against them. I take weight off them and get what we need to do done.
Are you planning on expanding in BC?
Absolutely. We need drivers in Prince George willing to pick up supplies and deliver them. The Kamloops centre is supporting five communities, we'll stay there for now, and get donation drops set up all over the place. If you go onto the Postmen Facebook page, you see a lot of people still communicating, becoming Postmen themselves.
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