British Columbia’s framework for disaster management has been severely tested in recent years. The effects of climate change and extreme weather events have had profound impact on our province, and it has become apparent that we collectively must adjust to a new normal of prevention and preparedness to mitigate impacts to the safety, health, and livelihoods of our people and communities.
The wildfires and flood events of 2017 & 2018 were absolutely devastating, and impacted communities like rarely seen before. Spring flooding in 2017 resulted in the evacuation of 2500 people, mostly in the Okanagan, followed by a damaging flood event in 2018 that forced over 5000 individuals from their homes in Grand Forks and other small, rural communities. The impact of the wildfire seasons in these same years will be felt for many years to come. Over the course of Summer 2017, over 65,000 people were evacuated from communities, mostly in the Cariboo as a record 1.2 million hectares of our forests were burned. This record of total hectares burned would be surpassed in 2018 with 1.3 million hectares burned. The City of Prince George hosted more evacuees than any other community in British Columbia during this time. The cost of wildfire suppression alone in these years was $568 million and $350 million respectively and resulted in provincial states of emergency to be called. These catastrophic events have disproportionately impacted small, rural and Indigenous communities through traumatic evacuation experiences and longer-term impact to their forest and resource sector economies. Further to this, British Columbians have dealt with the health consequences of severely negative air quality, and the wellbeing of family, friends, and loved ones.
Managing such disasters is understandably an incredibly complex operation. Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) provides leadership in emergency management on behalf of the Province, and aims to work directly with local governments, Indigenous communities, provincial ministries, other jurisdictions and volunteers in a coordinated effort to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies. Disaster events are incredibly challenging to plan for between all of these parties, but the response and recovery efforts rely on this preparation. It is important that the lessons learned in 2017 and 2018 be incorporated into the emergency management framework for the province.
As a response to the 2017 disaster events, the Province commissioned an independent review lead by George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman, resulting in the May 2018 report, Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia. The report contains 108 recommendations with key themes of partnerships & participation, knowledge & tools, communication & awareness, and investment. An overarching theme of collaboration, planning, and prevention is also prevalent as a strategic shift from the often-reactionary response within emergency management. As referenced in the report:
“It is imperative that we move to a multi-year, multi-pronged approach to community safety — one that involves concerted, proactive investment before emergencies happen.”
Such planning and prevention involve many stakeholders, most notably First Nations communities, local governments, Federal departments, and Provincial ministries. It also includes private sector expertise, forest licensees, tenure holders, and private landowners.
The business community plays a vital role in the response and recovery efforts through on-demand and expert support to execute operations including feeding and supporting firefighters, volunteers, and evacuees alike. The same businesses may also employ and could potentially be run by community members affected in areas where wildfires, floods, and other disasters may occur. Local businesses could also play an expanded role in providing food and beverage, lodging and other needed support streams to evacuees. Forest licensees and forest professionals are often the placed to support the planning and execution of interface fire protection and overall fuel management objectives. The Province could also create efficiencies by opening up processes to new innovative tools from BC businesses. For example, the Emergency Social Services (ESS) registration process for evacuees is paper-based and inefficient and would benefit from technological solutions. By bringing the BC private sector, including tenure holders, professionals, and the businesses community into the preparation and prevention process, it will not only build British Columbia’s capacity to prepare for, or even prevent disasters, but the following benefits can be achieved:
- Better awareness, coordination, and formal linkages to technical expertise and operational capabilities;
- Coordinated area-based planning and land use objectives, including fuel management;
- Local knowledge, relationships, and experience from BC-based contractors, both from technical experts and employees, during emergency operations compared to contractors from other jurisdictions;
- Potential technological improvements compared to stale and inefficient practices and systems in place.
The Chamber Recommends
That the Provincial Government:
- Fully implement the recommendations from the Abbott/Chapman Report;
- Develop a long-term vision and action plan to move towards disaster prevention, including strategic flood mitigation, and interface wildfire prevention;
- Develop partnerships with forest licensees, tenure holders, professionals and the business community to form operational agreements and new prevention initiatives;
- Develop a priority policy for BC based companies, contractors, and consultants for emergency planning, and for emergency operations;
- Seek technological solutions to support the Province’s Emergency Management system, and particularly those that benefit front-line workers;
- Recognize the critical support that local community-based businesses provide to emergency response efforts, and ensure that voucher programs, accommodations, and other support programs are opened up to the broader business community; and
- Encourage communities to develop business-based asset/suppliers lists of available equipment and resources that can be accessed during an emergency.