Communities need to be prepared for receiving evacuees and for evacuating themselves.
That was the message Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall told delegates at the North Central Local Government Association Convention during a panel discussion, delving into responding to community risks: wildfire and flood.
“You need to be prepared for both scenarios,” Hall said. “It doesn’t matter how small a community is, you could in fact receive evacuees from surrounding areas. And you need to be prepared to leave.”
Hall said he knows it is a difficult thing to evacuate a community and his heart went out to Mayor Walt Cobb when he watched him on TV as he talked about having to sign the order to evacuate the city in 2017.
“Each one of us in this room that are mayors or regional district chairs — you need to understand that’s part of what you signed up for. I’ve been harping away on this since 2017 — you just need to be ready.”
In 2017, Prince George got 10,000 evacuees and in 2018, had 3,000 — all within a 10 to 12 month period.
“It was a wake-up call for every emergency services organization in the province,” Hall said. “There is a tremendous amount of work left to make sure that efforts are co-ordinated and there is a central point and key personnel for us to connect with.”
Hall said Prince George learned very quickly that it was important to provide for evacuees the same services they were used to in their own communities.
“It meant putting together a number of things that were duplicating the services we provide to our residents.”
Those services ranged from health care to companies or organizations that could house livestock, and it was important to make sure there was a co-ordinated effort.
“In some respects we were caught off guard with the amount of infrastructure we needed to duplicate.”
They also learned as an evacuation hosting community they had the ability to take over large buildings to use, such as the College of New Caledonia and the University of Northern B.C.
Hall said registering evacuees was the most onerous piece because it could take upwards of 45 minutes to file for one family.
The City of Prince George moved forward in putting together a registration package the IT department could run, however, at the NCLGA convention, Dave Peterson, assistant deputy minister of Emergency Management BC, announced they are funding a pilot project in Prince George for electronic registration of evacuees.
“It will be good for us and for people coming in who are under stress,” Hall said. “We need to get it done fairly quickly and has to be done electronically.”
Hall said re-registering evacuees is also a process that needs to be streamlined.
Nadleh Whut’en First Nation moves forward post wildfires 2018
Panel member Chief Larry Nooski, Nadleh Whut’en First Nation near Fraser Lake, shared his community’s experiences with the fires in 2018 which burned approximately 22 per cent of the traditional territory.
“We need action on the ground to prevent these emergencies in the future,” Nooski said. “BC Wildfire Service has confirmed the Shovel Lake fire was human-caused by production out in the woods late in the summer. We have serious issues with that and we urge the Province to start tightening up their reins if there are problems with precipitation.”
Nooski said his community has been approved for funding to do a feasibility study for a Regional Emergency Management Training and Education Centre.
“Our vision is to have an emergency centre mandated to provide service to all communities within our northern regional boundaries,” he explained. “It would also be an evacuation centre capable of accommodating up to 1,500 people.”
It would also be rooted in cultural values of First Nation peoples with principles of respect for non-Aboriginal neighbours, and be structured to respond to all types of natural and man-made disasters, working with various governmental and non-governmental organizations on disaster management.
“It would be a research centre working in close collaboration with neighbouring post-secondary educational institutions,” he added.
Former BNRD chair calls for better communication and collaboration
Bill Miller, Chair of Bulkley Nechako Regional District, said working through the fires in his area in 2018, marked the worst days of his political career.
“It needs to be within hours to react to these fires,” he said, adding the system has to change. “There is going to be an overhaul and they’ve recognized the communication between local communities, between First Nations resources, industrial resources, collaboration with contractors, with home owners and municipalities. We have to be able to react and we have to bring all our resources together.”
Miller said communications improved in 2018, compared to 2017.
“It was the best we’d ever had with BC Wildfire Service. Part of the reason is their fire base is right across the street from the regional district so there was the physical closeness. But there was also a real desire for people to communicate and start working together more.”
There was, however, a lack of consistency, Miller said.
“Information is for public consumption, but it’s got to be intel — the intelligence behind the decision-making so when a Chief or a Chair signs an evacuation order they completely understands why that decision is being made and can have input into how that decision is being made.”