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Working out of a hangar in the Langley, B.C., airport, Shaun Heaps coordinates volunteer flights to bring supplies to communities that are still reeling from the floods and mudslides that devastated parts of the province last month.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Working out of a hangar in the Langley, B.C., airport on Thursday, Shaun Heaps was orchestrating dozens of flights to assist communities that are still isolated by the floods and mudslides that devastated parts of the province last month. Mr. Heaps created the volunteer operation from scratch after he and a friend flew over the damage out of curiosity and saw a need.

Since that first impromptu mission, dozens of pilots have signed up to run humanitarian flights. Mr. Heaps is now staying on the ground to manage a fleet of 58 small planes and helicopters. They have been transporting stranded people and delivering supplies, including gloves, heaters, blankets and food for people and pets. Many of the goods were donated by the Sikh community. The group’s planes are flying into Hope, Lillooet, Chilliwack and Merritt, and its helicopters are making runs to smaller, isolated communities between Spences Bridge and Boston Bar.

It has been a chaotic two weeks, and donations have not covered the cost of fuel, Mr. Heaps said. He is annoyed that Canada’s military resources have not been tasked with providing this type of relief. “We’re just a bunch of regular joes, filling a gap that needs to be filled and hoping that the government will step in.”

Mr. Heaps is annoyed that Canada’s military resources have not been tasked with providing humanitarian flights.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Much of British Columbia’s disaster response is being shouldered by local governments, the provincial government and the Canadian Armed Forces, but volunteer groups such as Mr. Heaps’s collection of pilots have been playing a vital role by doing the things governments can’t or won’t. Although the volunteer efforts are often improvised, they have, in ways large and small, sped the province’s recovery.

Still, that recovery will require time. Road repairs will take months. The Coquihalla Highway alone sustained 130 kilometres of damage. Other infrastructure – including railways, pipelines and municipal water systems – is still being patched. The full extent of the damage is not yet known.

The B.C. government has said it has deployed all available resources to support the cleanup. And almost 600 members of The Canadian Armed Forces arrived on Nov. 17 at the government’s request, with nine aircraft at their disposal.

Sometimes, there is overlap between the official disaster response and volunteer efforts.

A group of people who once lived on the stretch of Highway 8 between Spences Bridge and Merritt raised nearly $24,000 through online crowdfunding after much of their community was obliterated by the Nicola River. Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan, one of the organizers, said this money was initially meant to help her neighbours pay for airlifts so they could attend to their stranded ranches and farms, dump freezers full of spoiled food and ensure livestock had enough to eat over the next several months.

Cody Parsons, a plumbing and heating contractor who's been volunteering his expertise to those affected by the flood, shows off his dog's new coat donated by a grateful Princeton community member on Nov. 27.Caillum Smith/The Globe and Mail

But none of those funds have been used, because the Canadian military recently flew more than a dozen of the evacuees back to their homes, aided by a private helicopter company from Kamloops that donated its time.

Now that most in her rural community have been able to see their homes, Ms. Varcoe-Ryan said her group will have to decide what to do with the cash.

Flood cleanup in Princeton, B.C., pushes volunteers to the limit

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Some volunteer groups are ad hoc, like the platoon of fishing guides who took their boats out on the Fraser River to reach people and livestock trapped by the rising waters. Then there are the not-for-profit organizations with expertise in disaster response, like the Canadian Red Cross, which is providing financial relief to flood victims. And there is also the corporate response: forestry companies, retailers, restaurant chains and telecoms have collectively donated millions in cash and products. For corporations, the donations can be tax deductible, and they often generate positive headlines.

Trans Mountain has turned its oil-pipeline construction resources to the task of repairing roads for stranded communities, and its Merritt work camp is temporarily home to 36 evacuees, who may remain there through Christmas. Ryan McFadden, Trans Mountain’s director of Indigenous business and commercial relations, has been on the ground for the company helping direct the emergency relief efforts. “It’s apocalyptic. There are so many Indigenous communities that have been cut off without food and water,” he said.

Members of A Squadron, Lord Strathcona's Horse lay sandbags to reinforce a section of Princeton's dike on Nov. 27.Caillum Smith/The Globe and Mail

Lisa Mort-Putland, the chair of Volunteer Canada, believes the system is working as it should. “Individuals are motivated by a number of reasons to step up in an emergency,” she said. In Greater Victoria, where she is based, there are 70 volunteer organizations that can be tapped for emergency response. To have a government agency with that kind of capacity, she argued, would not be efficient. “If we had to create a government department to arrange the donation of hygiene products in an emergency, the cost in time and labour would be astronomical.”

Volunteer work is not tax deductible, but contributions of money and goods often are. Adam Parachin, an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who specializes in charity law, noted that Canada’s tax credits for donating to charities are among the most generous in the world.

Corporations may be motivated by the good public relations they can generate with their donations, he said, “but even if it is building a brand or shareholder equity, it doesn’t take away from the good work achieved. We are seeing people come together in moments of crisis.”

Last month’s twin consumer shopping extravaganzas, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, were followed by what charitable organizations have branded “Giving Tuesday.” The B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whose shelters are overflowing with creatures rescued from the floods, was just one of the non-profit organizations that used the day to remind its donors of the current need for contributions.

Although the volunteer efforts are often improvised, they have, in ways large and small, sped British Columbia's recovery.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

The SPCA’s Abbotsford shelter was flooded in mid-November. The animals were transferred to other SPCA branches. Meanwhile, the shelter’s staff set up at the local emergency services centre, where they handed out crates, leashes, pet food and other supplies, and directed evacuees to places where they could access free emergency boarding for their pets.

Cody Parsons isn’t part of an organized relief effort. Even so, he drove 240 kilometres to the town of Princeton, where he offered his plumbing and gas fitting services for free to people whose basements had filled with turbid water after the Tulameen River began to overflow its banks on Nov. 13.

According to authorities, 295 homes in the town were badly damaged in the flood. Mr. Parsons figured he had gone into 150 of those. He said he has been putting in 12-hour days, reconnecting heating where he can and helping homeowners determine what equipment is lost and what might be saved.

When he asked if anyone in town had a spare jacket for Noel, his Staffordshire terrier, Princeton residents overwhelmed him with offers. “Everybody wants to buy me a jacket!” he said.

With reports from Mike Hager and Anthony Davis


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