'It's not if, but when': B.C. fires expose Canada's lack of emergency preparedness, experts say

·3 min read
A motorist watches as a wildfire burns on the side of a mountain in Lytton, B.C., on July 1. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A motorist watches as a wildfire burns on the side of a mountain in Lytton, B.C., on July 1. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The fire that quickly overwhelmed residents and destroyed most of a B.C. village has renewed calls from some experts to urgently bolster Canada's ability to respond to emergencies fuelled by climate change.

Residents of Lytton had just minutes to flee their homes on July 1 as a fast-moving fire consumed the village, killing two people.

"Canada lacks a culture of preparedness generally," said Craig Stewart, vice president of federal affairs at the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The bureau is a member organization of Climate Proof Canada, a coalition of insurance industry groups, environmental groups and municipalities that advocates for climate adaptation.

"We seem to be in denial that the effects of climate change are already impacting Canadians."

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Stewart lists the multiple severe floods in Eastern Canada, the EF-3 tornado that hit Ottawa in 2018 and the heat waves and wildfires in British Columbia as examples that should have "woken up" Canadians and all levels of government.

Stewart says the federal government hasn't done enough to help communities adapt in order to handle the impacts of climate change.

Canada needs a new federal agency focused on disaster readiness, Stewart said, because its current response to extreme weather is disjointed and Public Safety Canada is too small a ministry to take this on.

"A new, beefed-up emergency management agency is required to protect Canadians," he said. "I think that the events of the past week have only borne that out."

Emergency plans don't consider climate change

Stewart says municipalities, which are on the "front lines" of the climate fight along with the insurance industry, need to get a better understanding of their vulnerabilities.

Eddie Oldfield has worked with 12 municipalities across Canada to do exactly that. In his role as senior lead of projects and advisory services with QUEST, a non-governmental organization that works on energy efficiency, Oldfield co-authored a 2020 report on how communities can become more resilient to climate change.

Some municipalities have adopted climate adaptation plans, such as Saint John, N.B., which has assessed how rising sea levels could impact properties and evacuation routes. Meanwhile, other communities are still developing their plans or haven't started the process, the report said.

Overall, it found emergency management plans are not keeping up with the risks of climate change.

In an interview with CBC, Oldfield said most provinces require municipalities to have emergency management plans (EMPs) and to update them regularly. But EMPs generally don't take climate projections — and therefore the increased risk and severity of floods, forest fires and other hazards — into account.

EMPs also need to be updated more frequently because of the changing climate, the report said.

Because "it's not if, but when" communities will face climate hazards, Oldfield said.

Pinpointing the risks

He said that West Vancouver is one district that has done significant work to decrease its risk of wildfires. The district now requires a special permit and fire-resistant design for development on land within 100 metres of a forested area.

Dave Clark, the fire chief of West Vancouver, said the community is working its way through 54 recommendations included in a Community Wildfire Protection Plan that council adopted in 2019. He said West Vancouver brought in an outside consultant to help make the plan in response to the increasing frequency of wildfires in U.S. states like California.

Submitted by Dave Clark
Submitted by Dave Clark

"It's kinda like going to the doctor ... the doctor is going to tell you what's wrong, and you have to be OK with that," Clark said. "I think that's where some people are concerned, or some municipalities might be concerned, because they don't know what they're gonna find out."

He said he's confident the fire in Lytton will inspire more West Vancouver homeowners to attend his next FireSmart public information program.

"The old days of 'I love summertime, I love the wintertime, I love fall' [are gone]," he said. "Now, each season has something different that nature kind of throws at us that causes me anxiety."

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