When B.C. Goes Up in Flames, Rural Communities Need the Most Support

The government plans for emergency preparedness for impoverished and rural communities in a province likely to experience unprecedented amounts of wildfire destruction

In 2017, British Columbia was swallowed by a wildfire season that left the skies hazy, rural communities devastated, and families displaced. The province declared a 70 day-long state of emergency, the longest in its history and the first to be declared since the similarly sized wildfire season of 2003. More than 65,000 residents were displaced by floods or wildfires. Direct fire suppression costs estimated at more than $568 million. More than 1.2 million hectares of land were burned.

As the flames tore through our evergreen forests and threatened to encroach on urban settlements, Canadians forced to leave home were left asking what to do next. Some might have had a comprehensive plan for how to recover. Others without access to resources or adequate support may not have known where to turn, especially if their property had been damaged or if they were separated from their loved ones in the fray.

There is an entire industry dedicated to preventing and recovering from fires in B.C. The wildfire season lasts from May until September, and the regions with the highest wildfire occurrence are British Columbia, the boreal forest zones of Ontario, Quebec, and the Prairie provinces, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, according to the Government of Canada.

A report entitled Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia states that incorporating mental health into support structures for evacuees “has generally improved” over the years.

“Mental health as it relates to the four pillars of emergency management calls not just for thinking about mental health and well-being in the recovery phase, but in the other three phases as well — so supports are in place before disaster strikes rather than as an after-thought,” it reads.

These supports are particularly relevant to helping those in the most need during or after a vicious wildfire season.

The emergency management manual created by the B.C. government  in 2011 echoes this statement, noting that “there will always be a psychological impact to those affected by an emergency, regardless of whether it is a large-scale event or limited to one or two individuals.”

Much has changed since 2011 when it comes to viewing and responding to natural disasters. Climate change has shifted to the forefront of public concern, and science about its development and threat to the wellbeing of people around the world has grown both accepted and widely shared.

Knowledge of how insects and diseases uniquely impact B.C. forests has also deepened. The mountain pine beetle is one notable pest in the province which Addressing the New Normal states “was in many ways at the heart of 2017 wildfires.”

“We can no longer rely on cold winters and summer fires to keep these pests in check. Climate change impacts us all,” it reads. “A range of data from reputable sources points to growing challenges with respect to heat, drought, lightning and intense rains intersecting with snow melt, underlining the imperative for government to respond in new, different or better ways.”

Working more closely with Indigenous communities was another initiative emphasized in the report:

“The massive lightning storm of July 7, 2017, and the more than 160 wildfires that immediately followed, confirmed the need for more extensive partnerships with local and First Nations governments, rural and remote communities and industry,” it reads.

“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.”

Words from Wildfire Expert Kevin Skrepnek 

One of the regions most affected by the 2017 wildfires was Kamloops, where Kevin Skrepnek, a graduate of KPU’s public relations program and current Chief Fire Information Officer of B.C., once lived.

He worked for the Kamloops Fire Centre’s communications department in 2011, and is now a spokesperson for B.C. Wildfire Service. Having grown up in Ontario before moving to Vancouver at 19, he wasn’t raised around the sort of fire destruction he saw while living in Kamloops, so the fact that it was “part of daily life” was new to him.

“The year 2009 comes to mind. It was before my time with the organization, but generally speaking, they had a fairly busy year across the province [and] particularly some pretty major fires along the coast,” he says. “I was attending my girlfriend at the time’s convocation and the valedictorian wasn’t there because she was a firefighter.”

While he had “covered some fires” as a photographer, his job was “moreso in a support capacity” while he was working regionally. At times, this put him closer to the frontlines, though his current department deals primarily with fires in the depths of the forest as opposed to others which protect the people living in rural settlements.

His department prepares for wildfire season by hiring and training hundreds of workers, getting equipment and aircraft lined up in advance, and working with stakeholders and partner agencies to plan a response. In order to be hired, the workers need to have an occupational first aid certificate and they need to pass physical fitness tests — no more and no less is required.

He acknowledges that 2017 and 2018 marked “two back-to-back record-setting firefighting seasons in terms of money spent, in terms of how much area burned [and] the number of people displaced and affected.”

However, he also notes that the province saw “a fraction of what we’ve seen in previous years” in 2019.

“[It] was still a fairly warm summer, but we weren’t seeing any drought or stuff like that. We were getting rain in many parts of the province,” he says.

In contrast, “from the start of June into the fall [of 2017] it was exceptionally dry,” so “by the heart of July, it was sort of primed for things to just go off.”

“Compare that to this year. It wasn’t necessarily cooler than usual, but the other conditions weren’t really there for things to take off,” says Skrepnek.

The Future of Wildfires in Canada

According to The Lancet Countdown, an international report on how climate change impacts our health, the hope that 2019’s fire season could indicate a future cooldown in B.C. is unfounded.

“Data collected by the researchers indicated that the number of wildfire exposures to human populations in Canada increased from an average of 35,300 from 2001 to 2004, to 54,100 from 2015 to 2018,” reads an article on the report published by the National Observer.

“The increased frequency is why more than half of the 448,444 Canadians evacuated due to wildfires between 1980 and 2017 were displaced in the past decade,” the article adds.

The report states that “these exposures not only pose a threat to public health, but also result in major economic and social burdens” and suggests the creation of a “pan-Canadian emergency response approach.”

“Human health impacts of fire include death, trauma and major burns, anxiety during wildfire periods and post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression related to evacuations,” it reads. “Wildfire smoke also travels vast distances and increases asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations.”

The National Observer article also states that, “if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in the mid-range of forecasted scenarios, wildfires in Canada could rise 75 per cent by the end of the 21st century.”

This risk is accompanied by a projected future growth in malnutrition, rising food prices, infectious diseases, air pollution, and extreme weather events caused primarily by climate change and emissions.

Outside of Canada, more people are being affected by fires as well. 152 out of 196 countries saw an increase in people exposed to wildfires in the past 15 years, as written in the Lancet Countdown, and at the time of writing, multiple major fires are currently raging across California.

“Canada is not on track: In 2016, total Canadian GHG emissions were 704 (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent), an increase of more than 100 metric tons since 1990,” the report reads.

“Policies and measures currently under development but not yet implemented are forecast to reduce national emissions to 592 metric tons by 2030, 79 metric tons above Canada’s 2030 target … a goal which is itself too weak to represent a fair contribution by Canada to the emissions reductions necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Government Comment and Resources

There is a long list of resources for increasing community resilience in an article published through the B.C. Journal of Ecosystems & Management.

It says that “rural forest-based communities are particularly susceptible to natural disturbances because their economic, social, and cultural aspects of life are closely linked to the local environment and climate.”

“First Nations communities are vulnerable for the same reasons, and for some, their vulnerability is accentuated due to remoteness, poverty, and a lack of adequate infrastructure,” it continues.

The senior public affairs officer for Emergency Management BC, Tara Gostelow, replied via email to multiple interview requests with brief statements and a list of resources available to British Columbians.

She is part of the lead coordinating agency for all emergency management activities, including planning, training, testing and exercising. This work is done in collaboration with local governments, First Nations, federal departments, industry, non-government organizations, and volunteers.

“Our government recognizes the truly catastrophic impact the wildfires of 2017 and 2018 had and continues to have on people in B.C,” reads Glostelow’s reply. “Our government remains committed to helping impacted residents as they rebuild and recover from these devastating wildfire seasons, taking individual needs and circumstances into account.”

Since 2017’s wildfire season, the province has invested over $1.6 billion into flood and wildfire response and recovery to support communities, according to Gostelow.

It has worked closely with the Canadian Red Cross as well, funnelling $115.7 million of funding into evacuees’ recovery, community improvements, and small business and not-for-profit support.

The Emergency Program Act is one piece of legislation which holds municipalities and regional districts accountable for responding to emergencies in their areas, including by coordinating emergency support services. It is currently under review, and a more comprehensive and efficient version is set to come out in the Fall 2020 legislative session. The province is also working on a digital registration program for accessing emergency support services.

“British Columbians forced from their homes by fire, floods, earthquakes or other emergencies may receive emergency support services for up to 72 hours,” wrote Gostelow in her email reply.

“Services may include partnering with community agencies to provide food, lodging, clothing, emotional support, information about the crisis, and family reunification. There may also be special services like first aid, child minding, pet care and transportation.”

Each applicant is assessed on a case-by-case basis, and those given extensive care are often the most vulnerable people affected by fires, like evacuees without friends or family to stay with or  travel and home insurance. People receiving income or disability assistance from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction are eligible to receive additional support.

During the 72 hours when emergency support services are available, the province “has daily calls scheduled with affected communities to answer questions [and] provide assistance and support, including helping with forms, resource requests, and notifications and expense eligibility,” according to Gostelow.

Gostelow also wrote that “the province is providing more resources to help prepare communities and keep people safe in a disaster” such as the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund and the Resiliency Investment Program.

One program she does not mention is Disaster Financial Assistance, which David Karn, media representative for the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, says is particularly useful for isolated and low-income communities.

“It’s for people who don’t have insurance. The people who line up to receive that kind of help, those are the folks who are really hurting. Others are like, ‘I bought insurance so I’m fine.’ I think that’s a big division between who has and has not,” he says.

“They find themselves looking for support within their own communities or their own agencies, and a lot of the times with First Nations it falls on the federal government.”

The Disproportionate Impact of Wildfire on Indigenous Communities

“We recognize First Nations communities were disproportionately impacted by the 2017 and 2018 floods and wildfires, and we will continue to work with First Nations communities to learn how to provide better support before, during and after emergencies,” writes Gostelow.

She and her colleagues have started making efforts to address this in a variety of ways.

The province has created new positions for First Nations coordination operational staff as well as a First Nations-specific tool kit and First Nations Emergency Management Regional Partnership Tables. It has committed to participating in daily “coordination calls” with First Nations during emergencies, and to using “local and traditional knowledge to help guide operations and operational priorities.” Finally, it is developing strategies for offering “enhanced training and public education resources to better support the needs of First Nations communities.”

“The Province will continue to work in partnership with local governments and First Nations to respond to major emergencies and make sure they have the resources they need to respond to the unique challenges their communities face,” writes Gostelow.

“Regardless of the impacted community, recovery is a lengthy and complicated process, and all government ministries have a role to play in helping a community move forward. In the spring, the Province implemented an Interim Recovery Framework to better serve communities affected by a wildfire event.”

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