VICTORIA — An automated alert system will be ready to warn British Columbians of spring flooding and summer wildfires but not yet for extreme heat, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Tuesday.
Farnworth told a news conference the Alert Ready system is all set for the spring thaw and will be in place by early June for wildfires. The system is an extra tool to help communities respond to the increasing threats posed by climate change, he said.
However, officials are still deciding when it should be used in the case of hot weather, similar to the so-called heat dome the province experienced last summer, he added.
"Right now there's work that's underway with the Ministry of Health in terms of what the parameters should be in terms of a heat warning. That's something that is coming," he said.
Alert Ready is a system available across Canada that allows government officials to issue public safety alerts through major television and radio broadcasters, as well as compatible wireless devices.
The B.C. government came under fire for not using the system to warn residents about scorching temperatures, which the BC Coroners Service later said caused nearly 600 heat-related deaths.
At the time, the province said it was only prepared to use Alert Ready for tsunamis and Amber Alerts for abducted children.
Almost two weeks after heavy rains in November began causing fatal mudslides and surging rivers that displaced thousands of people, the government said it was prepared to use Alert Ready to issue flood warnings.
Farnworth said Tuesday that while officials were prepared to use it in some areas if necessary last fall, it is now in place for use provincewide.
While the system is co-ordinated provincially, it is up to local government officials to use it. In extreme cases, the province can intervene and put out an alert directly, Farnworth said.
The system is only one of the ways that officials warn the public of imminent danger and won't replace door-knocking or police telling residents they need to evacuate, he added.
"It is a tool, not a silver bullet," Farnworth said.
A test of the system is planned for Wednesday at 1:55 p.m.
Farnworth announced the expansion as forecasters said the spring flood risk has increased in some areas. At the same time, they warned that both climate change and last year's disasters are making predictions more difficult.
Spring flooding usually peaks in May and June and is caused by a combination of rainfall, temperatures and snowpack levels.
The snowpack is now 114 per cent above normal levels on average, up from near-normal conditions April 1, with higher amounts in the Interior and northern mountain ranges, said Dave Campbell of the River Forecast Centre.
April was cool, which could increase the risk of flooding if temperatures swing up in the next few weeks, causing rapid runoff, he said.
Bobby Sekhon of Environment Canada said it will be important to get enough rain in June to protect against wildfires, while not so much that flooding is a problem. That's especially true in the Interior, which had a dry April relative to the rest of the province.
"It's going to be a fine balance," Sekhon said.
While snowpack can be monitored months ahead of flood and wildfire seasons, temperature and rainfall can only be predicted a few days in advance and he encouraged residents to watch for warnings.
Both said they are watching British Columbia's Interior, where wildfires and floods have changed the landscape and created new vulnerabilities.
— By Amy Smart in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2022.
The Canadian Press