In the case of an emergency, Sunshine Coast residents could soon receive notifications directly through their cellphone, landline or by email.
The Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) is currently working on a mass communication system to distribute information and share what action to take in response to an emergency event.
Residents would sign up in advance to be alerted by phone, email or an app, Matt Treit, the SCRD’s manager of protective services, told Coast Reporter on July 20. Although they were hoping to have the system ready to go by now, Treit said it will likely be launched later in August.
On July 20, the provincial government declared a state of emergency to come into effect the next day as 299 wildfires raged in B.C. and following 40 evacuations affecting 5,794 people in parts of the province. More evacuations are anticipated for the Interior region. For 14 days, the state of emergency will focus federal, provincial and local resources to wildfire response.
In the event of an emergency
With the province’s wildfire season in full swing, residents on the Coast have been asking what the SCRD evacuation plan looks like.
The current Sunshine Coast Emergency Response and Recovery Plan was updated in 2017, although Treit said the Hazard Risk Vulnerability Assessment is a bit outdated.
“People think of fires as taking over the entire Coast. More likely, it would be in a specific area to start with,” Treit said.
First, local fire departments would respond. At the scene of a fire, they would evaluate which properties, if any, are in danger. On the ground, firefighters or Search and Rescue members would notify the immediate residents by going door-to-door, similar to when two residences were evacuated earlier this month for the Trout Lake Road fire.
Information would also go out on the SCRD website, broadcast over local radio stations, and through the upcoming mass communication system.
An Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) would be set up and staffed by SCRD employees and, depending on the length of the emergency, other jurisdictions could assist. The primary EOC on the Coast is at the SCRD’s Field Road office.
A reception centre would be made available for evacuees to register and access support from the Emergency Support Services (ESS) volunteers.
There are currently 10 ESS volunteers – who most recently aided some of the residents affected by a July 14 apartment fire in Gibsons. Treit said they will soon be looking for more ESS volunteers, especially in the Pender Harbour and Egmont area where there is currently one active volunteer.
ESS helps to provide support finding accommodation, food and other necessities. While the group is funded by the province, it is administered locally.
According to the plan, a 200-bed emergency hospital is stored in containers in Gibsons, and there are two medical Casualty Collection Units on the Coast, one in Madeira Park and the other in Roberts Creek.
If the highway were blocked, Treit said the Coast is fortunate to have two directions to evacuate, if the need arose. To get off the lower Sunshine Coast, people could go either to Powell River or towards Horseshoe Bay. Presumably, he said, BC Ferries could bring in additional vessels in an emergency, but that could take over an hour or two. Individuals could also access their own watercraft.
“But note that having the one road is definitely an ongoing concern for evacuation, and even just for emergency responses,” Treit said, and if the bridge along the highway were to go, it could complicate matters.
“Unfortunately, it’s the nature of where we live and the infrastructure we have,” he said.
The SCRD focus is on preparedness, so that if something does happen, people are ready to evacuate when told to do so. When working in another community, Treit said they once evacuated the area, and afterwards residents thought the response had jumped the gun, “but it’s better to go early and everyone be safe, than it is to wait too long.”
Wildfire vs. Earthquake
Response looks different depending on the kind of disaster or natural emergency. Traditionally, the Sunshine Coast has focused on earthquakes as the biggest natural threat to the region.
“Now, with the changing climate, the wildfire threat is now a bigger threat than it has been in the past,” Treit said.
“Typically, for wildfires, they start at one location, and then you evacuate people from that area, and try to contain that fire as best you can.”
In the case of an earthquake, the Coast is unlikely to evacuate, since the roads could be blocked and both Powell River and the Lower Mainland would likely be grappling with the same situation. Residents would need to be prepared to stay put for at least 72 hours.
Meet the team
Since Treit was hired in August 2019, the primary emergency he has been tasked with is the pandemic. During the COVID-19 response, an EOC was staffed by the SCRD, with the involvement of the District of Sechelt, Town of Gibsons and shíshálh Nation. While the pandemic caught many off guard, it is an example of responding to an evolving emergency situation.
At the July 22 SCRD board meeting, the chief administration officer was expected to announce a new deputy chief/emergency management coordinator, Jordan Pratt. Pratt will be working with both the Gibsons & District Volunteer Fire Department and Treit. Part of his role, Treit said, will be to bolster the ESS and neighbourhood response teams, as well as work with FireSmart coordinators.
This summer and fall, public engagement events will include assessments by FireSmart coordinators and a demonstration at Halfmoon Bay’s Connor Park of forest management and wildfire mitigation work.
For now, residents can prepare for two scenarios: stocking up in case of being stuck, and prepping a grab-and-go bag for evacuations.
One misconception people have, Treit said, is that emergency services will be able to come by and help out shortly after an event. But that’s not likely to be the case.
“I don’t think people realize they are going to be on their own for a while. It’s just the nature of it, you have so many homes on the Sunshine Coast, and we have limited first responder resources,” he said. “It’s going to take a while.”
There will be a focus on getting infrastructure running – like the water system and communications.
At home, people should have what they need for at least 72 hours: food, prescription medicine and other necessities. A go bag should also have prescriptions and personal documents. People may want to prepare to bring pets and their food. (Information on what to include can be found at PreparedBC.)
Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Programs are also recommended. People can volunteer to help organize their own neighbourhood’s resources, whether that be knowledge and expertise or equipment. Residents can also prepare by knowing what their neighbours will need, such as if they can’t drive, have mobility issues or are at a higher risk.