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Sandy Lake evacuees now home after week-long stay in Arthur

by Chris Daponte

ARTHUR - It was only seven days, but for many of the 204 Sandy Lake residents evacuated to the community centre here, it was a bittersweet experience they won’t soon forget.

For resident William Meekis, the hospitality of the local community turned an otherwise unfortunate situation into a pleasant stay.

“Everybody’s so generous around here. It’s a nice, small town,” he said on July 28, just moments before boarding a bus to the Toronto airport.

Originally expected to stay anywhere from two to four weeks, all the Sandy Lake evacuees returned early to their northern Ontario First Nation community after fire restrictions were lifted in the area and it was determined the 114 forest fires still burning in northern Ontario posed a low risk to most communities there.

Meekis longed for the small comforts of home.

“I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed,” he said with a smile, adding it wasn’t the same sleeping on a cot in the arena.

“That’s not too comfortable, but it’s still a place to sleep I guess.”

Sleeping arrangements aside, most Sandy Lake residents were pleased with their temporary home, something Wellington North Mayor Ray Tout attributes to the kindness of local volunteers, residents and businesses.

“The community got behind us one hundred percent ... They were there when we needed them,” Tout said. “A response like that shows the true colours of small-town, rural Ontario - and that’s who we are.”

He also noted the whole operation would not have been possible without members of the coordinating team, which included the township, county, OPP, Wellington North Fire Services, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, Guelph-Wellington EMS and Canadian Red Cross.

County Warden Chris White said everyone involved should be commended for helping to make the operation run smoothly. He was particularly impressed with several staff members from the county who were at the community centre day and night.

“I’m pretty proud of the county folks,” White said. “Everybody went way above and beyond their job description.”

The county declared a state of emergency shortly after Wellington North made its own declaration. The idea, White said, was to ensure everything possible was being done to help Sandy Lake evacuees, but at the same time, ensure everything is covered financially.

“We were more than happy to help out, but at the end of the day, it shouldn’t be on the backs of local taxpayers,” he said.

White estimated the team should have an idea of the total cost of the operation in about 30 to 60 days, and it will submit an application to the federal government for reimbursement within three months or so.

He noted the community of Greenstone, northeast of Thunder Bay, went through a similar process and the county has asked for a copy of its successful application to get some pointers.

Reflecting on the overall experience, which he said was “extremely positive,” White said if one individual deserves most of the credit, it is the mayor of Wellington North.

“Ray Tout has done an incredible job - he really pulled this together,” White said.

But Tout repeatedly stressed the importance of the community buying into the idea. He said it didn’t seem to matter what the coordinating team asked of locals, or at what time of day, they just provided it, no questions asked.

“Our local businesses have been fantastic,” he added. The mayor told the Advertiser every single business in the village opened its doors with open arms to the visitors, and many went out of their way to do something extra.

As an example, he mentioned Walsh’s Pharmacy had someone on the scene in short order to ensure all the Sandy Lake residents had their proper medication, as many left in a hurry with little to no baggage.

County spokesperson Andrea Ravensdale mentioned several other businesses that “stepped up to the plate,” including the local Home Hardware, Actuate Corporation (which donated $1,000 for recreation equipment, books and video games), Nestle Waters (over 50,000 bottles of water) and All Treat Farms ($500 in phone calling cards).

Ravensdale said Sandy Lake residents truly appreciated everything that was done for them. Many told her they’ll miss the food and “the five-star treatment.”

OPP Constable Mark Cloes, who said the role of police was to assist with any security issues and ensure the safety of visitors and locals alike, also noted how thankful the visitors were.

“The residents of Sandy Lake are extremely grateful for the way they’ve been welcomed with open arms by the community of Arthur,” said Cloes.

Tout lauded the OPP for its role throughout the week and called the exercise “a friendly test to the [local emergency] system. And the system worked.”

Other than a few small glitches, things went extraordinarily well, agreed Linda Dickson, the county’s community emergency management coordinator.

“We’ve had tornadoes and floods ... but we’ve never had anything like this before,” Dickson said.

She added she received great feedback from others who have been through similar evacuations before, including Red Cross officials. In all, the county’s emergency responders will be much better prepared for future emergencies thanks to the Sandy Lake experience, she said.

But that’s not the only benefit - there were also many personal connections made.

“They came in as the Sandy Lake residents and left as our Sandy Lake friends,” Dickson said.

Tout noted he said goodbye to the evacuees “with a heavy heart,” as their short stay did not allow as much personal interaction as he would have liked. But that was the only real regret he had about the experience - and he is not alone.

“I asked the mayor if he would do it all over again and his response was, ‘In a heartbeat’,” said Ravensdale. “I couldn’t agree more ... It was an experience I will never forget.”

Meekis echoed that sentiment and hinted the experience has made him realize that despite the geographical divide, both sides have at least one thing in common.

Mentioning a large welcome sign, the efforts of the coordinating team and the kindness of local residents and businesses, he again pointed out the generosity of the Arthur community.

“That’s how we are, too,” he said with a smile.

* * *

According to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, over 600,000 hectares of land have been affected by the fires in northern Ontario, displacing over 3,000 residents.

More than 2,000 firefighters have helped battle the blazes - about 30% from outside Ontario - including the use of about 100 aircraft.




Last week’s article about the Sandy Lake evacuees who stayed in Arthur for a week failed to include one of the groups that helped make up the local emergency coordinating team.St. John Ambulance (Fergus-Elora division) also helped to provide first aid around the clock at the Arthur community centre.

August 5, 2011


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