Band’s emergency plan found wanting
Communities take stock of damage and go over lessons learned from terrible summer
WILLIAMS LAKE — The first thing Williams Lake Indian Band administrator Marg Shelley did when a fast-moving wildfire began to bear down on her community last month was pull out the band’s emergency management plan and start making phone calls.
She was shocked to find many of the numbers listed were unavailable — including the one for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, which the department didn’t know was out of service — or the lines were busy.
“It took quite a few calls before we got through to anyone,” Shelley said. “We’re all very structured here, very organized. We followed the plan and the processes. There was a little bit of panic then.”
That initial experience of implementing the emergency plan, which otherwise worked to get band members off the reserve safely and help those affected, taught the band its first lesson of this year’s wildfire season — it’s time for an update.
“We have an annual strategic-planning meeting and I think it’s something that should be part of it, revisiting the emergency plan,” band Chief Ann Louie said.
A lighting strike on the afternoon of July 7 sparked a fire that roared toward the reserve and forced its evacuation within three hours.
One home and nine outbuildings, including sheds, shops and sweat-houses, were lost.
The first two weeks of the disaster were the most difficult, because Louie said there was a lack of co-ordination between the agencies involved, including the city, band, wildfire service and regional district. She said the band administration was left out of a lot of conversations.
“It wasn’t until we really asserted ourselves that they paid attention,” she said.
After that, they were included in daily phone calls and planning sessions.
When band members returned home at the end of July there was a community information meeting, during which they and other agencies talked about what worked and what needs to be changed.
“No one appears to be afraid to say, ‘This didn’t work, but now we know it didn’t work, so we need to improve it,’ ” Shelley said.
Louie is pushing for a community forum this fall or winter that will involve the city, regional district and local First Nations, so they can be better prepared for natural disasters and emergencies.
The reserve is now in what Louie calls the early stages of recovery.
Some of the outbuildings were insured, and they will be replaced through insurance. The house, which is privately owned, and the remaining buildings weren’t insured. Shelley said they’ll be replaced with funding from the federal government.
The band is also assessing the economic impact, which is huge — in the tens of millions of dollars — because of the timber licences it holds in the area. A recent incremental treaty agreement awarded the band 1,200 hectares to log, which Louie said would have been worth $12 million alone. “Now that’s all burned,” she said. The grazing land on its ranch was scorched and all of the fences need to be replaced as well.
“The losses to our community, at this time we can’t even quantify it,” Louie said.
The fires that burned around Williams Lake didn’t make it into the city, but they came within less than four kilometres of the town, forcing its evacuation for 12 days. The city didn’t suffer any structural losses from the wildfire, but, in the surrounding areas, about 150 buildings were destroyed.
Scott Nelson, longtime Williams Lake councillor and former mayor, said the economic effect on the city, from cattle-ranching and forestry to tourism and small business, is significant.
“We’re starting now to tally that, and I can say that it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
That’s why on Tuesday council endorsed Nelson’s motion to ask the provincial and federal governments to establish a minimum, $1-billion “Rural Fire Recovery Fund” to help communities across B.C. with economic recovery.
“It’s just simply a disaster,” Nelson said of the fires. “In order to get our lives semi-normal and back to where we were before the fire, we need a cash injection. We can’t do it by ourselves.”
Another resolution will be put forward soon calling for a two-kilometre, boundary-interface, fire-management plan around Williams Lake, which will deal with the fuel that helps fires to spread, Nelson said.
“We’re going to go the extra distance to make sure the community is protected,” Nelson said. “We live in a forest and when you live in a forest you have to be prepared.”
There are 145 wildfires burning in B.C., including 17 new fires that started Tuesday. Since April 1, there have been 1,154 fires that have burned an estimated 10,650 square kilometres.
The cost of firefighting to date for the B.C. Wildfire Service alone is $419.7 million. The budget set for firefighting in February was $63 million, which is consistent with previous years. Overruns are paid for out of contingencies.
This year’s is already the most expensive wildfire season in recent history.
According to the Canadian Red Cross, 25,000 households have registered for emergency assistance and more than $20 million has been distributed from the $100 million the province provided to the Red Cross for fire assistance this season.
On Wednesday, Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Ann Louie — who visited the site of a residence that saw its outbuildings burned to the ground but the home spared — said this year’s wildfires proved her community needs to revisit its emergency plan.
This photo, taken by Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Ann Louie on July 7, shows the massive fire that threatened the reserve.