Evacuees offset fire damage to economy

Influx helps cushion blow to city’s seasonal tourism business

From left, Laura Noakes, Allen Goessman, Roy Jaroudi, Melissa Stark and Robby Jaroudi. The Natural Smiles denture clinic is offering free services to wildfire evacuees in Kamloops | Submitted

When wildfire evacuees starting arriving in Kamloops earlier this summer from various communities to the north, Robby Jaroudi jumped to action.

The denturist, who runs Kamloops clinic Natural Smiles and has a practice in Merritt, started offering free services to evacuees, whose numbers at one point added close to 11,000 people to the Interior city’s population.

“Most [of the evacuees] really had no time to pack up and get out of there,” he said. “So a lot of people packed up the essentials and got out as quick as they possibly could. So we sat down at our office as a group and said, ‘How can we help?’”

The answer for Jaroudi and his staff was to offer free routine maintenance and dental products for evacuees at his practice. This includes free denture repairs, adjustments, denture cleaning and denture cleaning supplies, plus everyday items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss.

Jaroudi said his office also has a Red Cross fund going that he intends to match once enough donations have come in. He added that offering free dental services, which can be quite expensive for those without extended medical plans, was just the right thing to do.

“We’re just more than happy to give it to them for free,” he said.

Jaroudi’s offering has highlighted the Kamloops business community’s broader response to the arrival of thousands of wildfire evacuees who have come to the city of 90,000 people from communities including Williams Lake, Ashcroft, 100 Mile House and Cache Creek.

Multiple Facebook pages have been set up to let displaced citizens know where they can get free or discounted services, and a local newspaper has been a running a listing of all the services offered.

While the evacuee influx raised the city’s population by as much as 12% at one point, the overall economic impact appears to be minimal.

While the local tourist season has been virtually wiped out by the neighbouring wildfires, evacuees from across the province have softened the financial impact.

Arjun Singh, the interim mayor of Kamloops, who is filling in for new Liberal MLA Peter Milobar until a byelection is held, said the wildfire situation has created a “net neutral” situation.

“It’s displaced the tourist trade. But obviously the hotels haven’t lost any money from this.”

As many as 3,000 evacuees have registered for commercial lodging so far this season. Singh said most of the lost business has been “self-imposed” as locals lend a helping hand. The City of Kamloops has also offered free transit passes and admission to the Tournament Capital Centre to evacuees. Singh said it’s great to see businesses forgo the bottom line in a time of need for fellow British Columbians.

“What’s weird about crises is they generate economic activity in some sense, but in another sense, we feel like we really want to support the people who are here the best we can.”

Monica Dickinson, Tourism Kamloops’ director of industry relations and communications, agreed that evacuees have mostly filled the place of tourists this summer.

“Our accommodation partners have obviously seen a benefit from this,” she said. “But concerning general tourism to the area, people are sensitive, and they are cautious. So what we’ve heard from some of our attraction partners, our wineries, that sort of thing, is that visitor volume is certainly not where it would be at this time.”

According to Tourism Kamloops, the local tourism trade generates approximately $377 million annually.

In 2003, the province recorded its worst summer for wildfires. About 2,500 burned throughout the province, but most were concentrated in the Interior. A provincial government report found the wildfires cost the province $700 million, displaced more than 45,000 evacuees and destroyed 334 homes. Thus far in 2017, numerous logging and mining companies have had to suspend operations in the province, and the wildfire season is now the worst since 1958.

Kamloops’ downtown arena, the Sandman Centre, which has a capacity of 5,500, was converted to an evacuee shelter after Williams Lake residents were forced to flee multiple fires nearby. Evacuees are also staying at Thompson Rivers University, which reached its capacity of 2,600 after Cache Creek, Ashcroft and 100 Mile House were evacuated.