KAMLOOPS, B.C. — British Columbia will form an expert disaster task force providing rapid response and support for people and communities facing climate emergencies amid a historic wildfire season that has destroyed about 400 structures, mostly homes, said Premier David Eby.
Eby made the announcement Monday as he visited the North Shuswap Lake area, located about one hour east of Kamloops, where the Bush Creek East wildfire destroyed almost 200 structures, including the firehall at Scotch Creek.
"The goal here is that the task force will be working with the public service in partnership with the hard-working people from emergency response from the wildfire service to ensure we're deploying additional resources, we're deploying solutions as they're recommended to us," he said at a news conference in Kamloops.
Some local residents in the Shuswap area ignored evacuation orders to stay behind and protect homes from the fast-moving fire.
Hundreds of properties have been lost, thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes and two young firefighters have died on duty this summer as the worst wildfire season in the province's history continues, said Eby.
Then, there are further cascading threats of drought, landslides and floods that have become a new reality, the premier said.
"We don't have the luxury of time between emergencies right now in B.C.," he said. "There's a great deal of urgency because the scale of this wildfire season was so historic and because we're going into another season now where we're dealing with both drought and simultaneously the possibility of significant rainfall."
Eby said the profound effects of climate change have B.C. facing "near constant emergencies."
The premier did not provide complete details of the task force's structure, mandate, timeline or members other than suggesting it could include a mix of expert government, local and independent people, comprising municipal and wildfire services workers.
Eby said he wanted the task force to implement on-the-ground changes and deliver resources where and when needed.
The task force will provide advice on volunteer recruitment, work with First Nations and front-line workers and ensure support for evacuees is more accessible, he said.
Special attention will be given to improving timely access to emergency funds and accommodation, Eby said.
B.C. faces a situation where "somewhere around 400 structures, most of which people can assume are homes of folks in fire-affected areas, burned to the ground, were totally destroyed this year," he said.
Opposition BC United House Leader Todd Stone said in a statement the government is embarking on an exercise in bureaucracy despite not implementing recommendations from a previous wildfire report issued in 2018.
"How can they think more reports and investigations will solve this problem when the last one is still collecting dust on their desks?" he said, adding the Opposition will introduce its wildfire mitigation, response and recovery plan in the coming weeks.
Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said the government should bring together community leaders, First Nations and local politicians to focus on climate emergency response instead of appointing a closed-door, expert task force.
"It's deep community work that is desperately needed now and has been for a long time," she said in a statement. "No government has properly stepped up to the plate on this."
Eby's New Democrat government is expected to introduce legislation this fall revamping the province's Emergency Program Act.
Eby said he expected the B.C. task force to work with federal government disaster response programs and efforts.
Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan said last week he has been speaking with local and provincial officials about developing a federal disaster response plan that could include a national firefighting force.
"We expect our task force will dovetail nicely with what they are doing," said Eby, adding the federal government has approached B.C. about working together on disaster response.
Eby said he was aware that in the North Shuswap he was touring an area where some residents defied evacuation orders last month to fight the Bush Creek East wildfire.
He said he understood the conflicting emotions some people must have felt about being ordered to leave with the possibility that their home would be lost.
"I get that," he said. "I totally do, and I have huge empathy for that particular dilemma. I can't imagine what it's like to face that choice."
But Eby said evacuation orders are imposed to help firefighters save lives and protect property, and having to rescue people left in the fire zone limits other firefighting efforts.
"We're trying to find a way that we can really find that balance of using those community assets, those volunteers, but also ensuring that the fire effort focuses on saving homes instead of rescuing people who stayed behind," he said.
Pearl Rasmussen, 76, and her son Wade Rasmussen, 59, said the wildfire took an emotional and material toll on them as it destroyed a family barn and workshop and caused much anxiety about the future of their homes and community.
The Rasmussens, who live in separate but nearby homes in Celista, spoke with Eby for several minutes Monday at Salmon Arm.
"The fire department saved my house, thank goodness, but just barely," said Pearl Rasmussen, adding she had lived on her family farm for 60 years. But the wildfire took a barn, workshop, farm equipment and her late husband's heritage vehicles.
Wade Rasmussen said once he was able to help his mother evacuate and get to safety with family friends, he returned to the fire zone where he spent two weeks fighting the wildfire with neighbours.
"Everybody was putting out spot fires, doing what they can to help their neighbours," he said. "The only resources they had was ourselves until (the BC Wildfire Service) could get back in and re-establish."
Wade Rasmussen was wearing a yellow T-shirt that said "Bush Creek 2023," with characters depicting the "BC Wildfire Service" running away and "locals" fighting a blaze with a firehouse.
Eby said in Salmon Arm that his government was working with local and federal authorities to help people like the Rasmussens obtain financial support to "bridge through to the next season, to help them rebuild and to get back on track."
Windy conditions in the province have caused flare-ups on several of the more than 400 active wildfires in the province. More than 170 of those blazes are considered out of control.
Officials in the Okanagan said Sunday that they weren't expecting to lift any evacuation orders or alerts related to the McDougall Creek wildfire.
In an update, Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said hundreds of properties remain evacuated, including 122 in the hard-hit city of West Kelowna.
Properties still under evacuation orders due to the blaze "are more remote, topographically challenging and/or close to active wildfire areas," it added.
BC Hydro crews were still working to replace more than 400 power poles and other infrastructure damaged by flames, including 27 kilometres of power lines and dozens of pieces of equipment.
A statement from the power authority said other efforts are underway to make evacuated areas safe for returning residents, including restoring gas and water services, and removing problem trees and other hazards.
— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria and Darryl Dyck in Salmon Arm
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2023.
The Canadian Press