Band’s emer­gency plan found want­ing

Com­mu­ni­ties take stock of dam­age and go over lessons learned from ter­ri­ble sum­mer

The Province - - NEWS - JEN­NIFER SALT­MAN jen­salt­man@post­media.com twit­ter.com/jen­salt­man

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.

JEN­NIFER SALT­MAN/PNG

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.

ANN LOUIE

This photo, taken by Wil­liams Lake In­dian Band Chief Ann Louie on July 7, shows the mas­sive fire that threat­ened the re­serve.

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