Two towns in Western Canada, both nestled in the heart of wildfire country, have begun the work of erecting permanent evacuation centres. In Spences Bridge, B.C., and High Level, Alta., summer fire season is becoming more powerful and erratic than ever before.
In disaster planning, such centres are known as “resilience hubs” – community shelters that co-ordinate communication and distribute resources during climate-related disasters and disruptions.
Some liken them to nuclear fallout shelters for the age of global warming.
During the duck-and-cover era in the 1950s and 60s, the U.S. government encouraged Americans to build shelters to protect themselves from the aftermath of a nuclear attack. They were packed with water and canned goods – enough to sustain people for days or even weeks.
But the fears driving the erection of the modern bunkers stem from our rapidly warming climate.
Hotter temperatures alone don’t cause fires, but the science shows that global warming does intensify them. Flooding, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly severe and more frequent.
The need for a permanent shelter crystallized for people living in and around High Level, Alta., in the wake of the Chuckegg Creek wildfire in 2019, Mayor Crystal McAteer says. “The fire was huge, and burned over 350,000 hectares. Residents had to flee with only the clothing on their backs.”
The High Level shelter is proposed to be a dual-purpose facility: a safe haven and shelter during emergencies, and a year-round recreation centre with an indoor track, arena and pool. The facility is expected to cost $88-million.
In emergencies, the fieldhouse and fitness classrooms convert to sleeping areas. A hallway to the school next door provides access to a commercial kitchen. Each classroom has drop-down dividers and is equipped with gender-neutral washrooms containing showers and separate sinks. These rooms can offer additional privacy to vulnerable populations requiring medical care.
Planners believe 2,000 people could shelter in the facility for the duration of a disaster. The spaces are envisioned as regional hubs where people from neighbouring communities could gather – the buildings themselves aren’t fire-proof.
The Chuckegg Creek fire burned right up to the highway bordering High Level, a town of 3,200, which is an eight-hour drive north of Edmonton. Wildland firefighters were able to push it back from there, and managed to save the town. But 15 homes were lost in Paddle Prairie, a Métis settlement south of High Level.
The region has seen six of the hottest years on record in the past 10 years, along with unprecedented winds, Ms. McAteer says. Both the severity and frequency of wildfires are increasing. “They are expected to start earlier in the year, burn hotter and longer,” she adds.
The region is home to more than 20,000 Indigenous peoples, including 750 in the nearby Dene Tha’ First Nation. “Our seniors, First Nations Elders and children all encountered serious trauma” after being “shipped all over northern Alberta,” during evacuations, says Ms. McAteer.
During the Chuckegg Creek fire, “children were out of school for two months. Many Elders do not speak English, and could not understand what was happening to them.”
Some suffered broken bones and bed sores. Others died. “The facilities they were sent to did not have the resources to properly care for them,” Ms. McAteer says.
The response to floods and fires has always been reactive, she adds. There is no forward planning. Everything is done on the fly. “We house our members in hotels, at a massive expense to the province – and a co-ordination nightmare.”
Ms. McAteer says the proposal has been “well received” by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and various ministers, but the municipality has not received any financial commitment from the province. “We asked for $35-million – a small contribution, compared to the amounts that were dispersed to the communities of Fort McMurray and Slave Lake after their devastating fires.”
In British Columbia, there are no government programs to fund emergency shelters. The province’s Community Emergency Preparedness Fund supports flood mitigation, volunteer firefighting equipment and training, and evacuation route planning.
The Interior B.C. town of Spences Bridge is another community sick of reacting to emergencies. People there are tired of seeing the community scatter – to hotel rooms in Kelowna, Chilliwack or even Vancouver – every time disaster strikes.
Some residents have been evacuated twice in the past year alone. The first time, last July, they were forced out for two weeks, when the Lytton Creek wildfire threatened the Nicola Valley. When the Nicola River flooded in November, three months later, many were again forced out. Some evacuees still haven’t been able to return home.
The need for a permanent evacuation centre is “just common sense,” says Steven Rice, director with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District. “There are all kinds of buildings in rural areas that have kitchens and bathrooms and just sit there. I thought: Why don’t we have this in our toolbox before the next fire season? Why don’t we create a place for future emergencies – so people don’t have to evacuate to Chilliwack or Kelowna.”
Mr. Rice and his wife, Paulet, own the Packing House café in Spences Bridge as well as a hobby farm along Highway 8. They were evacuated last July and again in November. It was only in March, when repairs to Highway 8 reached their driveway, that they were finally able to return home.
Mr. Rice says that Spences Bridge is calling its evacuation hub a “resiliency centre.” It is being set up in the community hall. “We’re filling cupboards with first-aid kits, and donations of blankets and non-perishable foods made following flooding.”
The mayor of neighbouring Cache Creek – which was threatened by the Elephant Hill wildfire in 2017 and the Tremont Creek wildfire in 2021 – brought a load of cots.
Establishing permanent evacuation centres is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. Uganda has begun setting them up in the western Kasese District, where climate change and poor land management have led to recurring flooding.
In February, the Philippines completed construction on an $8-million stand-alone evacuation centre in Minalin, with a kitchen, medical room and children’s room.
In an editorial, the Inquirer, a Philippine daily, urged the construction of dozens more. Supertyphoons that cause “extreme losses in human lives and property” will be the new norm owing to climate change, it noted. “Building stronger infrastructure is the absolute minimum for a country facing such existential threats.”
Stephen Wong, an engineering professor at the University of Alberta, studies evacuation procedures.
Resilience hubs need to be able to handle acute shocks – such as last summer’s “heat dome” in B.C. that left 600 dead, and the winter flooding that caused hundreds of millions in damage and left five dead in that province – Prof. Wong says. But they could also be used as cooling centres during heat waves or spaces where citizens could attend lectures on wildfire-mitigation techniques.
“Let’s not wait till disaster comes and then turn it on,” he says. “These events are not common. But they can be catastrophic.”
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