For more than two weeks, a tiny air force has been buzzing in and out of the Langley Regional Airport, laden with critical cargo for B.C.’s flood ravaged Southern Interior.
They aren’t members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Instead, they’re private pilots backed by a small army of volunteers who have been collecting food and other essential supplies from around the Lower Mainland to pack into the dozens of daily flights.
“There’s so many communities that are still cut off. There’s no roads between Boston Bar and Spences Bridge, and Spences Bridge and Merritt. There’s no supplies. So that’s what we’re doing,” organizer Shaun Bradley Heaps, a pilot and member of the West Coast Pilot Club told Global News.
“These pilots are donating their time and their planes and everything, without expecting anything.”
In the wake of the Nov. 14 atmospheric river that triggered flooding and landslides throughout southwestern B.C., Pritpal Singh Sekhon, who coordinates donations for the initiative, said local gurdwaras and other community groups began looking for ways to help.
They connected with the flying club, then began the difficult job of trying to open communication with local food banks, many of whom had also been flooded out of their properties.
The group has now connected with 30 to 35 communities — many with temporary food banks set up in schools, community halls and churches, Sekhon said.
Those flights are now supplied by a growing network of religious and community groups throughout the Lower Mainland gathering food and other essentials that have been requested by the affected communities.
“Lots of other organizations working on the ground,” he said. “Hard to say how many people are working — maybe thousands and thousands.”
Some of the volunteers pouring energy into the initiative have been directly affected by the disaster themselves.
Tracie Fawcett got trapped on Highway 7 when it was washed out in a mudslide and rescued by helicopter, only to connect with a pilot’s wife who was handling phone calls trying to coordinate relief efforts.
“I was like, can I help? Because I don’t know anything about planes but I have receptionist experience,” she said.
Since then, she’s been back again and again to help, energized by the feeling of solidarity on the ground and in the air.
“My faith in humanity has been restored. People are so kind and generous, people are welcoming you into their homes without knowing you, people are feeding you — everyone is just so kind.”
While the grassroots airlift is nothing short of remarkable, Heaps wants it to be better next time.
He’s turned his eyes to the United States, which has had a formalized structure for such efforts for nearly a century.
“The United States have had a program called the Civil Air Patrol since the ’40s. I’m very surprised we don’t have anything like that in Canada,” he said.
“(It) is exactly what we did today, a bunch of local pilots who are on a list that gets enacted in case of emergency, and then we have donators, people who supply food — exactly what we set up here.”
His goal, he said, is to bring the idea to the federal government with the goal of emulating the American program.
Sekhon said between the long days and nights of coordinating donations and getting them off the ground, volunteers are already working on organizing so the B.C. initiative — from pilots to community groups — can spring back into action if they’re needed again.
“We want one platform: whenever there is any disaster that happens in the future, we need to help people within 30 minutes to 40 minutes. That is our goal,” he said.
In the meantime, Heaps said the little army and air force of volunteers will keep working as long as they’re needed, through Christmas if they must.
“People need it,” he said.
“If I was in that community I would hope that someone who was in my position was looking after me.”