British Columbia's public safety minister admitted his government's wildfire response this week revealed "gaps in protocols" after facing criticism from First Nations leaders.
Mike Farnworth's comments came a day after the tribal council chair for the worst-hit area of the province lambasted the province's lack of early communication as "sickening" while homes and other buildings on the Lytton First Nation were destroyed by fire.
"While there were challenging factors, early communication with the Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council and the Oregon Jack Creek Band didn't live up to expectations," Farnworth said in a statement Sunday. "I have made my expectations clear to the ministry and I have been assured that immediate steps have been taken to address gaps in protocols that contributed to this situation."
The tribal council includes Lytton First Nation, which has land in and around the Village of Lytton, and four other communities. The Oregon Jack Creek Band's reserve is located near Ashcroft, north of Lytton.
Chief Matt Pasco, who chairs the Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council, told CBC News it took hours for emergency authorities to respond to his requests for co-ordination and assistance as residents evacuated — many hours after he received a call from provincial officials asking him about the welfare of cattle on his nearby ranch.
"People were dying, people were running for their lives — I'm getting phone calls as a rancher about the safeguarding of my cattle but the province had no response to the needs of our governance entities," Pasco said in an interview. "If you ask me what sickens me, it's that."
He said his tribal council quickly asked the province to collaborate with member First Nations to create muster stations for evacuees, collect information on evacuees, share up-to-date information on members still unaccounted for, book hotel rooms and transport evacuees.
"We took over what Emergency Management B.C. and [Thompson-Nicola Regional District] are supposed to do," he said.
Instead, it was left to those Indigenous communities to arrange everything themselves without any additional funding "to save people, to give them anything they're needing," he said, "but it's been hard."
WATCH | Lytton evacuee told to 'take whatever you can and get out of there':
He said the root of the problem is not simply a failure to communicate, but what he alleged is a lack of respect for Indigenous governments and leaders.
"They don't even recognize us," Pasco said. "When an emergency happens, we aren't even important enough — they don't honour our jurisdiction when I phone them up to say, 'Here are the things we need.'
"This province does not recognize our governance systems, what we bring, and how we can protect our people."
Emergency Management B.C.'s executive director of regional operations, Pader Brach, said that First Nations agencies were "engaged as early as possible and sitting at the same table as the provincial government," and that from the get-go the province took "a collaborative approach."
Pasco took issue with EMBC's claims to have included First Nations at the table early on, or that the province is fully sharing its data with Indigenous emergency responders.
WATCH | Wildfires rage in B.C. amid continuing dry conditions:
"You have huge co-ordination problems when you do not honour the jurisdiction and governance structures of another organization, and that's what this province does," Pasco said.
After the initial evacuation chaos ended, he said he received several calls later on Thursday with apologies from senior ministry officials — but that it "took hours upon hours" for their offers to improve co-ordination.
In his statement, Farnworth promised he would direct his ministry — which oversees emergencies — to order "improving communications with First Nations leaders in the event of an emergency situation," and that those leaders would be included in emergency co-ordination calls.
"We have worked to put in place better systems, based on lessons learned," Farnworth said.
The province said in a release that in the future it would "ensure that First Nations leadership is aware" of its emergency activities, but that last week "the province had little time to work out a plan of action" in light of the "urgency of the tactical evacuation."
Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately.
Evacuation centres have been set up in the following locations to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire:
Castlegar: Castlegar Community Complex, 2102 6th Ave.
Chilliwack: Chilliwack Senior Secondary, 46363 Yale Rd.
Kelowna: Salvation Army, 1480 Sutherland Ave.
Merritt: Merritt Civic Centre, 1950 Mamette Ave.
Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre. Those unable to access the online registration can call the Emergency Support Services registration at 1-800-585-9559.
Those looking for loved ones can contact the Canadian Red Cross for family reunification services at 1-800-863-6582.