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Shaun Heaps at the West Coast Flying Club hangar in Langley, B.C., on Dec. 2, 2021.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

When rivers of rain fell over British Columbia last November, destroying highways and marooning people across the southern half of the province, it wasn’t the army that came to the rescue of the suddenly stranded.

When troops did finally arrive – four days after the flooding began – their mandate wasn’t rescuing motorists or ferrying food, diapers and dog kibble to communities suddenly cut off from B.C.’s highway system. They were deployed to Abbotsford, to build an emergency levee to help save the Sumas Prairie.

So the job of making food deliveries and transporting people out of the flood zone fell to a ragtag group of volunteer pilots.

Retired firefighter Shaun Heaps led the effort, making all planes from the Langley-based West Coast Pilot Club that he runs available to help. Others heard his call for help on Facebook and flew in from Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley to assist. In all, 70 pilots took part. Sigmund Sort flew in from his home in Qualicum Beach every day, piloting 49 rescue flights. Langley’s Stan Corfe took 77 trips.

Over six weeks, pilots dropped more than 180,000 kilograms of relief supplies, including dozens of Christmas toys into Hope, Merritt, Princeton, Spences Bridge and several other affected communities. On return flights, they brought home stranded passengers, their dogs and one very frightened monkey.

Neither the federal nor provincial governments offered Mr. Heaps any advice – or funding to offset the $20,000 in fuel he put on his credit card – but he did take a fateful call from the leader of the California Disaster Air Relief Team, or CalDART. He urged Mr. Heaps to create a permanent disaster air-relief team.

With flooding, forest fires and landslides all on the rise in B.C., the need for volunteer air corps was immediately clear to Mr. Heaps. In this way, the November floods became their test case.

Thus was born the British Columbia Airlift Emergency Response Operations, known as BC AERO. It formally launched this spring with a patrol range that runs the length of the Pacific seaboard – from Alaska to Mexico. The all-volunteer effort is headquartered at the West Coast Pilot Club in Langley. Already, AERO chapters in Ontario and Alberta have launched.

In June, AERO joined in its first cross-border disaster training exercise with DART teams from Washington and California. Codenamed “Operation Thunder Run,” the dawn-to-dusk exercise was a real-life practice, with dozens of planes ferrying almost 14,000 kilograms of supplies to food banks in eight different locations, including Bellingham and Walla Walla in Washington. The idea was to test their readiness to respond to an earthquake and tsunami on the Pacific Coast.

“I feel safe – like we’re in good hands,” said Langley Mayor Val van den Broek, who stopped by the headquarters with the local fire chief, to take in the exercise.

Half of BC AERO’s squad are retired airline pilots, board member Mike Davenport explained. The rest fly in their free time, or work in the industry.

The province's latest disaster is bringing out the best in people, but their work also highlights some of the gaps in government response.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Shari Morrison, who flew to Bellingham Saturday morning, grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot, but at 22, ran out of money halfway through flight school. She shelved the dream and became a realtor, building a successful business in Pitt Meadows with her husband. But the itch to fly never did go away.

Three years ago, at 38, she earned her pilot’s licence and got a new job flying for Cascadia Air, a tiny commuter airline.

Ms. Morrison flies a small, white Cessna she bought over the winter. Her trial run to Bellingham for BC AERO went off almost without a hitch.

After landing, she briefly slowed her approach, searching the unfamiliar tarmac for the customs area. An air traffic controller barked at her to: “Get moving,” then a half-second later followed up with: “Get. A. Move. On.”

Ms. Morrison chuckled at his impatience as she hit the gas. Don’t worry, she said with a broad smile. “If the Big One hits, I’ll be ready.”

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