The plenary session at the 2023 Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) convention was devoted to a topic that increasingly takes up more time at the annual week-long meeting of local and provincial politicians: the impacts of climate change and mitigation attempts by governments.
"A common future of every summer will be the impact of wildfires on people in long-term care," said Health Minister Adrian Dix.
He said 988 people in long-term care homes were displaced due to wildfires this year, and 895 people were similarly evacuated in 2021.
Dix said that it posed a particular problem because summer used to be typically a less onerous season in long-term care homes from a staffing perspective, putting a further strain on the province's nursing needs.
"We've added [close to 5,000] nurses, but nobody thinks that's enough, nobody thinks that's close to enough," he said.
Several sessions on wildfire season
Other UBCM sessions on Tuesday covered the new disaster management laws the province will be instituting this year and preparing for future wildfire seasons — with local and provincial officials giving advice on things communities can do over the fall and winter.
"You have to have a Plan B, because your Plan A never works," said Paul Gipps, West Kelowna chief administrative officer.
Gipps encouraged communities and regional districts to speed up giving evacuated residents dedicated supports and shelter, to conduct more simulations with their emergency operation centres in the down season — and in those simulations, to change their assumptions of how fast those fires could spread.
"Prepare and mitigate … because when it happens, it happens fast," he said.
'The heat isn't just pleasant'
The community of Ashcroft, about a 4-hour drive northeast of Vancouver, knows how quickly fires can spread.
It developed a Heat Alert and Response System in 2018 after wildfire evacuation orders and alerts engulfed the Thompson-Nicola region for weeks. And Mayor Barbara Roden spoke about it at a presentation.
For a town of less than 2,000 people, it may seem like an extensive system of communications protocols, evacuation policies and cooling centre operations.
But as one of the few communities in Canada that sits in a desert-like setting, Roden knows how dangerous conditions and heat can get.
"Heat isn't just pleasant, it can kill you, and has killed people, and if we don't act promptly it will continue to kill people," she said.
And in the aftermath of another massive wildfire season in B.C. by historical standards, adapting to climate emergencies is increasingly on the minds of communities big and small.
The 2023 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention brings local and provincial politicians together for a week to discuss a range of issues. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Climate impact resolutions
On Wednesday and Thursday, several resolutions will be debated in regard to wildfire management and emergency regulations.
A resolution by Nelson calls on the province to create an annual funding model for local emergencies, a resolution by West Kelowna asks for more for the province's FireSmart program, the Peace River Regional District wants B.C. to increase its wildfire equipment capacity, and Saanich is requesting more funding for climate adaptation costs.
There was agreement from both local and provincial officials that the province could improve its communication and collaboration approach in this year's wildfire season.
"We need to work together to … have a good relationship going into seasons like this. Relationships get challenged, all the way through," said Ian Meier, assistant deputy minister for the B.C. Wildfire Service.
"The communications shifts we've made have been good. Has it been far enough? No."
However, there was less unanimity over whether the province should conduct an independent review, instead of the task force announced by Premier David Eby.
"It's a nuanced discussion between a third party and a task force, but it comes down to who's on the task force," said Meier.
"You look at our engagement with local communities, or lack thereof … if we don't dig into it, how will we learn?"