The past week has seen yet-to-be-determined levels of devastation in B.C.’s Interior, with tens of thousands of people displaced temporarily, and some who have no home to return to. The grief and anxiety – and a province in a state of emergency declared on Aug. 18 – are leading locals to ponder, what would happen in case of a major fire or another disaster on the relatively isolated lower Sunshine Coast?
“Where do I go if I evacuate?” is a question oft-posed to Sunshine Coast Regional District’s Emergency Management Program coordinator, Nancy Hughes. The SCRD’s Sunshine Coast Emergency Program is the lead emergency management agency on the Coast. Hughes redirects the question, stressing instead the need for individuals and families to be prepared. Potential emergencies vary, but, “If people are prepared, it helps us to help them.”
“[Emergency Management and Climate Readiness] Minister Bowinn Ma and Premier [David] Eby, this weekend, have asked everybody in the province to get prepared and know what to take ahead of time,” said Hughes.
What do you put in a go bag?
Building a kit doesn’t need to be expensive, said Hughes. “You probably have a lot of the things in your home already.” Don't forget your pets and any medication or food they may need, she added. A wind-up or solar-powered radio for access to emergency information is also important.
Personally, Hughes has a fire-proof box, easy to pick up and carry out, in which she keeps important papers: house insurance, some cash and passports (or other government-issued picture identification). “Then you know where it is so you can grab that along with your grab and go kit and anything else that you think is important to take with you,” said Hughes.
“Watching people being interviewed from the Okanagan this weekend, saying that they just weren't prepared, they were throwing stupid stuff in their car. They have nothing that they truly need. It's fascinating and quite alarming what happens when people are panicked.
“We have the luxury of time right now,” she said.
Where do I go in an emergency?
But the question remains – if there is a major emergency that requires evacuation, where do people go?
It depends on the location of the emergency and the type of emergency, said Hughes. A fire, an earthquake, a pandemic or a HAZMAT event will require different responses. “The emergency dictates the location and the need,” said Hughes.
The SCRD has a draft overarching evacuation plan for the Coast that’s being reviewed with the intention it will be posted on the website once finalized. Then there are smaller community evacuation plans that build into the larger plan.
“I believe that chances are low that we'd have to evacuate the whole Coast at the same time,” said Hughes. “Yes, we have one highway, and that is critical. But we also have ferry terminals at either end, we have barge landing sites, we have a transportation plan that we could use.
“It would be an orderly evacuation.”
Egmont, Tuwanek and the Gibsons bluff/bay areas have community evacuation plans, funded through grants and finalized earlier this month, the start of the emergency program “drilling down into detail for the smaller communities.”
While Hughes was not working at the SCRD when those communities were chosen to get the first evacuation plans, she noted that Egmont and Tuwanek are high-risk for fire because they’re dry and isolated. There is no set schedule of when or which communities will be next for community evacuation plans, said Hughes.
Not revealing reception centres in advance
The SCRD has pre-identified reception centres for evacuated people: government buildings, schools, recreation centers, private halls, and has equipment (some purchased with grant money this past spring) for setting up the centres, said Hughes. The emergency support services (ESS) team has the buildings’ floor plans and plans for where evacuated people could be put.
The Coast has a strong ESS team on the Coast, said Hughes. With 14 trained and active volunteers and equipment to open group lodging for 200 people, the ESS team would organize and staff reception centres. “Group lodging is available to anyone who is displaced from their home and don’t have the means or support to find shelter, such as a motel, friends, or family,” explained Hughes. The volunteers are part of a provincial program managed locally through the Sunshine Coast Emergency Program.
However, Hughes isn’t saying where the potential reception centres are because she fears that in an evacuation event, people would go to places they think are centres, but are not – compromising personal safety. Hughes stresses the need to know where to get accurate information in case of emergency: Voyent emergency alerts, the SCRD website, 91.7 FM, Facebook and Twitter – “all those places the SCRD will send messaging out on.” An evacuation alert or order would also come with door knocking.
Should evacuations be called, the SCRD has an app with an interactive map that one can search by address for any active alerts or orders – similar to what the Central Okanagan Regional District is using in its current wildfire evacuation efforts. The SCRD’s app has been used in the past for boil water advisories, said Hughes.
In case of an evacuation or emergency beyond local capacity, the local emergency operations centre (EOC) would plug into the provincial emergency regional operations centre, which would in turn coordinate with BC Ferries, Coast Guard or military as needed, said Hughes. The local EOC would also plug into BC Wildfire as needed.
What about fires?
A wildfire spotted on the Coast triggers emergency planning. BC Wildfire has an office on the Coast and “if any fire starts in the forest, then they're on it and we're aware of it immediately,” said Hughes. “That's when the risk [gauging] starts, and the planning, and we start looking at plugging into Environment Canada for weather, wind patterns, all of it.”
“As soon as something starts, there is a lot that kicks into action behind the scenes.”
The Coast has six fire departments – four under the SCRD (Gibsons, Roberts Creek, Halfmoon Bay and Egmont) and two that are separate from the SCRD (Pender Harbour and Sechelt) – but all have mutual aid agreements to work together as needed.
Asked what she’s hearing from local fire chiefs this summer, Hughes says concerns include irresponsible smokers, illegal campfires, and unknown chemical hazards on rural properties.
FireSmarting is also an important preparedness step for property owners, Hughes added. The SCRD offers FireSmart assessments, information for which can be found on the SCRD website.
Anyone who spots a fire can report it through the BC Wildfire mobile app or report wildfires or unattended campfires by calling 1-800-663-5555 toll-free or *5555 from a cell phone.
To see the current wildfire situation in B.C., visit bcwildfire.ca.
Hughes has seen an emergency preparedness mindset shift in the past six years, as major wildfire seasons return year after year, she said. “There's people that are going and getting themselves prepared quietly and calmly and confidently.”
For those just starting to think about evacuation preparedness, Hughes stresses, be prepared with a go bag, sign up for Voyent emergency alerts and know where to find accurate information in case of emergency.
“This helps us help you to evacuate in a safe and orderly fashion,” said Hughes. “Listen and go when you're ordered. Please leave. Don't stay behind.”