How B.C. is preparing for wildfires and floods amid COVID-19

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Public health guidelines force emergency planners to change tactics as the province prepares for the possibility of another record-breaking summer of fires

Fire in BC through forest
Photo sourced via Pixabay

As British Columbians hunker down at home, emergency planners are staring hard at weather forecasts and attempting to solve a different problem: How will the province deal with another summer of fires and floods when first responders, firefighters, and community volunteers are under the same physical distancing restrictions as everyone else? While these restrictions are effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19, they are causing emergency planners to suddenly rethink their preparation and response plans.

“The current pandemic will make the work of emergency managers more challenging throughout both fire and flood season, as it has in all aspects of our society,” Emergency Management British Columbia’s Joint Information Centre (EMBC) told the Martlet in an emailed statement.

Add in the fact that the climate crisis has made floods and wildfires increasingly likely, and B.C.’s emergency services may be in for one uncomfortable summer. According to Global News, Natural Resources Canada recently projected that the western, central, and northern regions of Canada are facing the prospect of a well above average wildfire season. Most of British Columbia is included in the area of concern, with the exception of Haida Gwaii and a small area on the coast just slightly north of those islands. 

The summer of 2020 could, potentially, be shaping up to be more in line with the record-breaking fire seasons of 2017 and 2018 than the relatively quiet summer of 2019. This all depends, however, on the measures taken by citizens as many fires are human caused. Thus, the province has also taken the preemptive measure of banning most open burning activities as fire season gets underway.

In April, 120 residents of the Squamish Valley were forced to evacuate. In addition, CBC reported that some areas of the province have extremely dense snowpack which has the potential to cause extreme flooding later this spring and summer. Fires can also cause people to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as smoke can lower their immune system.

So with a fiery few months on the horizon amid COVID-19 restrictions, it will be a difficult summer for emergency planners, to say the least. EMBC, however, says that the province has been working to minimize the disruption in preparing and responding to natural disasters.

The provincial governmental organization, which oversees all emergency preparation and responses for natural disasters, said that they are working with the BC Wildfire Service and the Ministry of Health to find ways to alter their preparations. This planning aims to allow for a quick response to natural disasters while at the same time following the guidelines put forward by British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. 

For the B.C. Wildfire Service, the logistical challenge is difficult. Fighting a fire often involves close contact between firefighters as they live and work as a team at the site of the fire. Undergoing preparation is difficult when team members can’t engage in close-quarters training with one another. Despite this, EMBC says that B.C.’s firefighters are preparing by holding new and potentially virtual training camps and cancelling in-person meetings and planning sessions — while at the same time limiting travel and only engaging in low-risk activities in-person. 

In regards to flooding, EMBC officials are reviewing processes and guidelines, the availability of medical facilities, and the flooding risk in all areas of the province. Activities such as filling sandbags will also be undertaken in a manner that follows physical distancing guidelines.

For those forced to flee their home due to natural disasters, university residences and hotels are expected to be the preferred shelter points, although stay at home orders will also be used more liberally if possible to limit the spread of infection at shelter points. Digital check-in systems will help to keep track of evacuees while maintaining a safe distance between them and volunteers. In addition, EMBC has said that they are working to find ways to shore up the supplies of emergency support services as suppliers have faced disruption due to COVID-19.

The military has also announced that they will be standing by to provide support while non-governmental organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross provide much-valued volunteers, supplies, and expertise.

Despite these preparations, however, some natural disaster risk experts are cautioning that no matter how prepared emergency response personnel are, they will still have to deal with both the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to vulnerable communities and community resistance to outside support. 

In an interview with CTV News, Andrew Kruczkiewicz of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society stated that disaster response could be delayed as emergency personnel figure out safety protocols for vulnerable communities, such as Indigenous communities and small rural communities, which may not have the medical facilities to respond to an outbreak of COVID-19. This could cause problems for the effectiveness of any disaster response.

Kruczkiewicz also said that due to the vulnerability of communities dealing with COVID-19, it will take a couple years of recovery before the ability to respond effectively to a disaster will be back.

Climate change may prey on this weakness, according to a 2019 climate risk assessment from the provincial government. 

This report was put together through a collaboration between the B.C. Climate Action Secretariat, B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and the international climate consultants ICF. The report found that severe wildfire seasons, seasonal water shortage, and heatwave events are the most likely consequences of climate change in B.C. between now and 2050. These events will cause strain on the province’s resources, people, and economy at a time when many are already reeling from the impacts of COVID-19. 

Global News reported that Canada already spends around half a billion dollars a year on natural disasters — this figure will continue to go up as the impacts of climate change grow more frequent and more severe.

As the province prepares for the summer, emergency planners are working to develop protocols that keep people safe both from emergency disasters and COVID-19. And with a summer that has the potential to be chock-full of fires and floods, any and all preparations will be much needed.