SLRD says it is committed to helping homeowners rebuild lives after wildfire

Representatives from the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) say they are committed to advocating for constituents affected by wildfire last summer.

More than 40 structures burned to the ground when a rare fire tornado formed over the edge of Gun Lake near Gold Bridge, B.C. in the early hours of Aug. 18, 2023. Since then, homeowners say the journey to rebuild their homes has been marred by countless obstacles and senseless red tape.

In an interview with Pique, SLRD officials stressed they have been in constant communication with the province to help Gun Lake locals rebuild their homes as soon as possible.

SLRD chair Jen Ford said every homeowner is in a different situation, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“One of the things that our staff did well from the beginning was engage with the province, [and] with Red Cross to ensure that they could connect directly with the homeowners. Each property had unique circumstances,” she said. “To go out with a blanket statement wouldn’t have worked. Not every property had the same level of need in terms of what their insurance and rebuild looked like. Our staff called each and every homeowner separately so that we knew what they needed. We couldn’t say that we gave the homeowners the same box of tools, because it didn’t work that way.”

Chief administrative officer, Heather Paul, said primary homeowners were prioritized from the beginning.

“Canadian Red Cross provided a few thousand dollars for primary homeowners that were uninsured. There were three individuals that were able to take part in that program,” she said. “Wildfire insurance was deemed widely available. It’s the province that deems that. Our job is to advocate on behalf of the constituents when it comes to how provincial regulations affect them and how we operate. The Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) does not apply if insurance is readily available. It also never applies to secondary homeowners.”

Paul acknowledged secondary homeowners faced the same level of heartbreak, particularly those whose generational homes were lost in the blaze.

“There is no difference when it comes to love of the property,” she said. “There is no difference when it comes to the connection to the property. I was there. It was devastating. That love, loss and grief is real. Primary homeowners are prioritized again and again when it comes to funding. That is something our team sees constantly.”

She added the SLRD made sure everyone had a bed to sleep in before turning to the future.

“We ensured that people who were made homeless had a place to live and that they had all the resources they need to rebuild. Then, the SLRD started to waive fees,” said Paul. “Area A has some select funds which are usually used to support non-profit community groups and infrastructure. Those funds were used to start waiving fees for everyone. We waived fees for load limits of scrap metal at the Gold Bridge station for residents that were affected by the wildfire. We amended the building bylaw to allow for reduced building costs, around 30 per cent.”

Initially, homeowners were required to hire a qualified professional engineer before even removing debris—a rule that has since changed.

“Debris clean-up and riparian assessment was a really big conversation,” said Paul. “When the province made the rule about the riparian setback and clean-up, they weren’t thinking about wildfires. It basically told everyone that if they wanted to clean the trees or the dock that is burnt, you need to get a qualified engineer professional to come in before you even start. The SLRD staff started to point out that it wasn’t fair, and it is inaccessible. People were cleaning up anyway.”

Paul added the cost created a barrier for hard-working people who were just trying to do the right thing.

“It took some time, and they changed the legislation,” she said. “For clean-up, a qualified engineer professional is not needed. This removes that huge cost.”

However, expensive costs still prevent people from getting their lives back on track. “Qualified engineer professionals are still needed to rebuild,” said Paul. “That’s still a barrier.”

When asked about the delay in homeowners not being allowed to remove rubble from their properties, officials said they could not have moved any faster.

“There were groups of people who wanted to start before the evacuation order and alert had been removed,” said Ford. “They wanted to get in there and start the clean-up before the winter because they saw that the snow melt was going into the lake. There were delays because of the availability of qualified engineer professionals. TELUS was there installing telephone poles. There were many different people trying to work in the same space for a long time. Meanwhile, there were still crews on the ground dealing with the hazard itself.”

The chair said the SLRD tried to coordinate crews to ensure minimal delays. She heard locals’ frustration at the time.

“Unfortunately, some people didn’t see that as fast enough,” said Ford. “It wasn’t for lack of want or trying. It just takes time to get into these spaces and to do the work safely. We wanted to protect our staff and the public for that period of time. As the weather changed, it became difficult for people. We moved as fast as we could.”

Paul added the SLRD supported water-quality testing. “We went to the province and said that the community shouldn’t be paying for that,” she said. “The water quality in Gun Lake was famous for how clean it is.”

Homeowners were also able to dispose of hazardous materials free of charge.

“We made funding available to homeowners through a hazardous materials survey reimbursement program,” said Paul. “We didn’t want asbestos and things like that to sit on the property, but it costs a lot of money to drop things like that at a landfill. If they were dropping it off, they would submit the invoice and the SLRD would pay for it. It didn’t matter if people were primary or secondary homeowners.”

Senior public affairs officer of the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, Aaron Hinks, said the province is working closely with regional districts on this issue.

“The province has provided funds to the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District for recovery supports to steward community members through the recovery process,” said Hinks. “The province also continues to work with the regional districts to identify barriers and provide updated guidance on debris removal within riparian areas. The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District is reviewing building permit applications.”

He said the ministry is taking action with partners to get homes built faster.

“Last fall, we passed new legislation that supports faster permitting and construction times,” said Hinks. “The Province has also recently launched the new Building Permit Hub, a digital tool that will streamline and standardize the local permitting process for improved delivery of new homes. The Building Permit Hub will address those challenges by standardizing requirements and streamlining the application process to ensure completeness and compliance with key sections of the BC Building Code.”

The province is also urging homeowners to make sure they are insured. “Having insurance can facilitate timely and efficient rebuilding. Property owners with homeowner’s insurance are encouraged to work with their insurance provider on their rebuild plan," Hinks said.

More information on correspondence between the SLRD and homeowners is available here.

Roisin Cullen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Pique Newsmagazine