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‘A traumatic stressful event:’ Alberta wildfire took toll on park staff

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  • The pain would have been excruciating for two female black bears found in Waterton Lakes National Park after the Kenow Mountain wildfire tore through the rugged mountain landscape last September.

    One was found lying on its back with severe third-degree burns on the bottoms of all four feet. The other was barely able to walk, apparently blind and had its ears completely singed off.

    A wildlife health report obtained by The Canadian Press says putting the animals down was the only humane option and describes how Waterton staff shot them before Parks Canada’s wildlife unit arrived.

    “This was a traumatic, stressful event for some of the staff involved and assistance by mental health professionals may be required in future to help with the psychological trauma resulting from these interventions,” says the report.

    The document was one of several obtained under the Access to Information Act that highlighted the trying circumstances Parks Canada staffers faced as they contended with a disaster the agency described in one analysis as unprecedented in its severity and impact.

    On Aug. 30, a lightning strike sparked a fire in British Columbia’s Flathead Valley, which spread toward the boundary with Alberta under hot, dry conditions. Waterton was evacuated on Sept. 8, as the fire was poised to spread into the southwestern Alberta park.

    The day before the evacuation, Pat Thomsen, executive director of Pacific Mountain and National Parks, wrote to the national office concerned Waterton employees would not qualify for travel status in the event they would have to live temporarily in Pincher Creek, 55 kilometres away.

    Travel status enables employees to be reimbursed for costs such as transportation, accommodation and meals.

    “This is not a helpful nor compassionate answer, and needs to be reconsidered,” Thomsen wrote. “Your intervention is requested ASAP.”

    Parks Canada said in an emailed statement that employees who lived within park boundaries, were forced out between Sept. 8 and Sept. 21 and were still required to work were given travel status, consistent with the agency’s travel policy.

    The fire jumped into the park three days after the evacuation and then spread onto adjacent grassland, prompting evacuation orders in nearby communities.

    Notes for a phone call between Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Waterton superintendent Ifan Thomas recounted how just as Waterton staff were assisting with those evacuations, one Parks Canada employee learned his house had burned.

    “Despite his personal situation, this employee continued to conduct the evacuation with the RCMP during the night and returned to work at 5 a.m. the next morning.”

    The park’s visitor centre and other buildings were lost but the townsite was spared — an outcome top brass at Parks Canada credited to the staff who installed firefighting sprinklers, removed combustible material and made other preparations as the fire approached.

    “As the area commander and field unit superintendent both affirmed, if it had not been for your prevention efforts, it is clear that the Waterton Lakes townsite would have been lost,” Parks Canada CEO Daniel Watson wrote in a Sept. 15 letter thanking employees.

    He commended them for standing “generously, compassionately and resolutely in the face of the catastrophic,” regardless of lack of sleep or having lost homes in the fire.

    Watson acknowledged the emotional toll the fire may take and committed that the agency would do whatever it could to offer support.

    “We recognize that many of you have suffered personal loss or may have had to watch others suffer catastrophic loss … Some days we are a team. Today we are a family.”

    Parks Canada said immediately after the fire, the agency provided mental health support to all its personnel, as well as staff from assisting agencies and contractors. All were invited to group counselling sessions and counsellors were also made available one-on-one.

    “Materials and information on mental health and wellness has been provided to supervisors of Parks Canada staff who were involved in the Kenow wildfire, so that they can help direct staff seeking assistance related to managing stress, mental health, or wellness concerns.”

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press



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    ‘When everybody leaves: Counselling key to help Humboldt move on after bus crash

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  • HUMBOLDT, Sask. — Mary-Jane Wilkinson is worried about what will happen to families and a community grieving the dead and the injured in a tragic hockey bus crash earlier this month in Saskatchewan.

    Funerals have been held and residents of Humboldt where the junior league Broncos are based face the return to their daily routines.

    Wilkinson, the manager of the Canalta Hotel, experienced grief herself when she lost her husband at a young age. She was left to raise her son Richard by herself.

    Dealing with life after a tragedy can be the worst part following a loss, she said.

    “When everybody leaves, which eventually everybody does, then you’re starting your new normal and it’s very tough. The community is going to really have to keep working to make sure the people heal … with the support from the community,” said Wilkinson.

    “Once everybody goes away, they’re actually dealing with it for the first time alone, and I know what that feels like.”

    The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in Nipawin, Sask., on April 6 when their bus and a semi-trailer collided at a rural intersection. Sixteen people, including 10 players, died and 13 were injured. The driver of the truck wasn’t hurt.

    The deputy reeve of the Rural Municipality of Connaught where the crash occurred said the immediate aftermath has been hard for many people.

    “One of our councillors that sits at this table with us was one of the first on scene. He’s struggling,” said Ian Boxall. “The biggest thing right now (is) making sure that these people have what they need to get through this.”

    Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy was part of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos crash in which four of his Western Hockey League teammates died.

    “There’s the shock, and then there’s the grief, and then … part of healing with anything is acceptance,” said Kennedy.

    “We’ve got to find ways to manage those negative thoughts, or those images … or the guilt. We know a lot of guilt comes with people who have come through these types of tragedies.”

    The Psychology Association of Saskatchewan is urging people to reach out for help. Dr. Regan Hart, with the association, said the first thought is with the friends and family of the victims. But she said a tragedy like this is far-reaching. 

    “It could be quite wide-ranging in that sense because a lot of these kids were quite active members of their school groups and their communities,” she said.

    “When it’s someone you know in such a tragic kind of accident, I think it kind of hits close to home for a lot of people especially in a small province and smaller communities that we have here in Saskatchewan.”

    The association compiled a list of mental-health resources for the general public: http://bit.ly/2HjoZIX

    — By Bill Graveland in Calgary. Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

    The Canadian Press


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    Parliament Hill plays host to last annual marijuana rally before legalization

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  • OTTAWA — A haze of marijuana smoke blanketed crowds on Parliament Hill on Friday as pot enthusiasts of all ages gathered below the Peace Tower for the annual cannabis celebration known as 4-20.

    The event marks the last time pot users will flock to the Hill to celebrate cannabis culture in late April before the federal government legalizes recreational marijuana later this summer.

    “What happened here today on Parliament Hill was a gathering of like-minded individuals seeking sensible cannabis legislation,” said Kevin Shae, a 32-year-old recreational marijuana user.

    For Shae, that means ensuring the government does not create a “monopoly of the industry” and making sure those with health issues have the access they need to medical marijuana. 

    Young people and older medicinal users alike were well represented among the expanse of people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder across the west lawn in the heart of the parliamentary precinct. RCMP estimated the turnout numbered in the thousands.

    Tyler Graydon, a first-time 4-20 attendee, said he and his friends are “excited” to see pot becoming legal. Graydon, 17, is closing in on the minimum age for legal consumption — it will vary from province to province, but 18 or 19 seems to be the ballpark, likely following on existing alcohol restrictions.

    Graydon, however, doesn’t think it will make much difference.

    “As soon as it’s legalized, it’ll be in too many hands to really stop it,” he said. “They’ll get their hands on it somehow. They’ll get it from their parents or from the jar in the cupboard. It won’t be hard.”

    By mid-afternoon, police were reporting a mellow vibe with no incidents.

    For Alex Burridge, 20, this year’s celebration is a particularly meaningful one — he just picked up his first prescription for medical marijuana, which he’ll use to alleviate back pain from a sports injury. Legalization, he says, has been a long time coming.

    “It’s something that people have been looking forward to for generations and we’re finally on the brink of it. I feel like it’s something that puts our country ahead of a lot of others.”

    Fourteen-year-old Emma Boniface, whose mother also uses marijuana for medical purposes, earned cheers from the audience for her keynote speech, part of an effort by organizers to emphasize the importance of including young people in the national conversation about legalization.

    “I have to trust that our current government and medical system will know what’s best for me because I’m a minor and I don’t have the right to decide for myself,” she said.

    “My mother is all the proof I need to know that cannabis works.”

    Ottawa paramedics responded to three medical incidents, two of which involved people exhibiting the effects of marijuana use. They were treated and released at the scene.

    Ottawa was far from the only locale in Canada where 4-20 was being celebrated. Gatherings took place across the country, from Vancouver to St. John’s, N.L., where the newly opened Puffin Hut was hosting an inaugural “Weed Olympics.”

    Scheduled events included a biggest bong hit competition, a dab-off and a prize for the most creative joint art.

    “The perfect way to describe it would be to say it’s like being in a martini bar at 12 o’clock on a Friday night, only much more chill,” manager Brian Walsh said of the festivities.

    In Vancouver, venders hawking marijuana edibles, T-shirts and pot paraphernalia set up tents at Vancouver’s Sunset Beach.

    Cannabis activist Jodie Emery said while there is a festival-like celebration of marijuana culture on the beach, it’s also a protest — the sort of event that ultimately made legalization possible.

    “This is an enormous act of peaceful civil disobedience where people are openly breaking the law and demonstrating that (this) should not be illegal, Emery said — a reference to the merchants selling all manner of pot products, the sale of which won’t be any more legal after the Cannabis Act is passed.

    “The upcoming legislation actually makes all of this still illegal — you’re not allowed to brand or market. All of these entrepreneurs, hundreds of small business owners, will still be criminals under the Liberal legislation.”

    Raisa Patel, The Canadian Press





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