“Communication in a crisis” has emerged as the number one issue that the provincial government’s Flood and Wildfire Review is hearing about, as it meets with residents, First Nations, and elected officials throughout the province.
The review was announced on December 4, 2017, and is co-chaired by former Liberal MLA and cabinet minister George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman, Hereditary Chief of the Skawahlook First Nation. Abbott and Chapman were in Cache Creek on February 6 to attend a public session to hear feedback about the province’s response to last year’s floods and fires.
“We’re hearing more about the fires than the floods,” says Abbott. “Cache Creek had a double whammy, and Kelowna had both, but few people were evacuated by the flooding; nothing like the 65,000 who were evacuated because of the fire. That was the largest evacuation in the province’s history.”
Abbott and Chapman have already held several meetings with First Nations and elected officials, and the Cache Creek meeting was the second community engagement session, with another 10 planned.
“I hadn’t formulated any thoughts before going in,” says Chapman, who had a private tour of the Ashcroft reserve with Chief Greg Blain last year after the fire. “I spent a lot of time in Kamloops during the fires, and spoke with the Kamloops chief, so I knew some of what was going on. But until you’re on the ground and hear from the front line people, you don’t realize the extent.”
“I’m impressed by the consistency of what we’re hearing throughout the province,” says Abbott, citing the communication issue. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and Facebook was one big vacuum. Unless we—federal, provincial, and local governments and First Nations—find a way to build a common communications platform, and populate it, people will be subject to the tyranny of the misinformation vacuum.”
Chapman says there is a need to get more organizations—including local residents, First Nations, ranchers, and local governments—at the table to talk. “We need to have more communications strategies in place. Policy and bureaucracy can get in the way, but decisions need to be made locally and regionally. We need to get people together, because we’re all in this together.”
Abbott adds that it has become very clear from the size of last year’s disasters that the emergency system in place needs improvement to help it cope. “It’s good for 100, 200 evacuees; 65,000 puts the system in jeopardy. We can pretend that this will be the last event of this magnitude, but from what we know about the issues surrounding climate change, we need to think about Emergency Social Services facing these challenges.
“These one in 100 year, one in 200 year, one in 500 year events are becoming more common. We’re getting longer periods of intense drought, protracted high temperatures, heavier rains, more snowpack melt. The protracted high temperatures increase the risk of lightning strikes, which sparked a lot of the fires on July 7. We need to defend ourselves, and respond quickly and efficiently to these fires.”
After communication, fuel management is the most common topic raised. “Either we have prescribed burns, or we’ll have this again,” says Chapman. “That’s a communication part of the puzzle. We need to have discussions, and honour what’s worked and what hasn’t.”
“We have forests that are, for a variety of reasons, very heavily fuel loaded,” says Abbott. He notes that the Filmon Report, commissioned after the devastating 2003 wildfire season, recommended substantially reducing the fuel load in the province’s forests, but that only four to 10 per cent of the recommended removal within two kilometres of communities has been achieved.
“That the success rate is so low after 14 years means that either the prescription wasn’t right, or not enough resources have been used. And people like trees. They don’t want fireproofing in their back yards, and they’re not thrilled to have what they see as unnecessary smoke in their lives. But people need to be realistic about it. Those prescribed burns provide a good measure of fire protection. People need to have a community discussion, and better understand why [prescribed burns] are happening.”
Abbott adds that there has also been a lot of discussion about the need for four season planning. “You can’t start planning, and building a system, when a disaster is upon us. We have to think all year round. I think a lot of people are looking for more planning, prevention, mitigation, and research.”
Chapman agrees that prevention has been a big theme across all the meetings. “People have been very candid with their comments, which is what we want to hear. The Premier wants to hear from people who experienced the disasters.”
Abbott notes that the comments he is hearing are more thoughtful than angry, but adds that there is still significant fear in communities.
“People are still on edge. It’s difficult not to conclude that more resources need to be put into planning and preparing, to respond to wildfires more effectively.”
He says that an interesting issue that has emerged via talks with the BC Cattlemen’s Association and others is how public policy should respond to those who are reluctant to evacuate when they are ordered to.
“We respond by saying ‘Don’t do that’; but do we find a way to work with them more effectively. We’re hearing this as an important public policy.
“We need to think our way through this, and come up with a reasonable policy that takes into account regional boundaries.”
Chapman says they are attempting to meet with as many First Nations communities as possible, and had a very good meeting with Chief Ryan Day and several Bonaparte Band members. “They’re very capable, and have several mechanisms in place. But there are no reserve boundaries, no district boundaries, when fires and floods come. We need people guiding and assisting, and we need more tools to help them.”
She adds that it will be three years before cattle and horses can graze on some pieces of land, which is a huge concern, and that places where First Nations people traditionally gathered or picked berries are not available anymore.
“What do we do? How do we replenish the land when there are no fish, no animals? Ranchers have displaced animals. The scope of the problem is huge.”
Abbott says that “We need to ensure that First Nations are full partners in all aspects of managing disasters. We need training in communities and a model of interaction so that First Nations can continue to fight disasters and receive supplies. It comes back to the communication issue. We need to know where people are, how they’re resourced, and what their escape plan is.
“It goes back to four season preparation. The more we can fill the information channels with accurate information, the better. I’m determined that some good will come out of this.”
Chapman says “There are some things I’ve heard that I didn’t think of. It’s been very educational. Premier Horgan appointed us to be collaborative, and the joint processes and partnerships are very important.”
The BC Flood and Wildfire Review will have a preliminary report prepared by March 30, 2018. The final report will be submitted on April 15, and released on April 30. Online feedback is being accepted at bcfloodfirereview.ca.