Good morning. Wendy in Vancouver here this morning.
People in British Columbia will soon get alerts on their phones when a forest fire or a catastrophic flood might threaten their home and force them to evacuate. They already get such alerts in the case of a predicted tsunami, though as the mayor of Ashcroft, in the Interior of British Columbia, mentioned dryly, that’s not terribly helpful to people in her town.
But British Columbians, in Ashcroft or anywhere else, will not be getting similar warnings when temperatures start to skyrocket and the hot weather goes from being uncomfortable to being dangerous as it did at the end of June last year, causing some 600 deaths.
More work needs to be done, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Tuesday, before the Alert Ready system would be used for heat events.
Alert Ready is the nationwide direct-to-cellphone alerting system. It was rolled out four years ago across Canada and other provinces have been making use of it, though rarely. As of last July, emergency officials in Alberta had used Alert Ready more than 70 times since 2019 – including 25 times for wildfires.
But The Globe and Mail reported last year that B.C. has never used it, the only province not to embrace the system.
Alert Ready has capabilities the province’s warning systems lack. Only the national system’s technology can commandeer the air waves to make “broadcast intrusive” warnings pop up on all TVs, radios and cellphones in an area at once.
The devastating wildfires of last July sent thousands fleeing from their homes and wiped out the town of Lytton. But the warnings that residents received were through a patchwork system of local alerts.
Instead, until Tuesday, Alert Ready was reserved for amber alerts for missing children, for “civil disturbance hazards,” and to issue warnings about a potential tsunami. Emergency Management BC never did explain to The Globe why tsunamis were the only natural disaster to qualify for the system.
Following The Globe’s reporting, Minister Farnworth acknowledged last year that expanding the system was needed.
On Tuesday, he made good on most of that pledge. The province is rushing to expand the system now for floods and wildfires, as forecasters warn of an elevated risk this year on both fronts. There are already troubling signs of drought in the interior, and a higher-than-normal snowpack, which increases the chances of flooding in communities when the snow melts.
But for heat, using Alert Ready is still under consideration.
Temperature records were smashed in 62 locations in Western Canada last summer. According to the BC Coroners Service, the province had 595 heat-related deaths in 2021, mostly during the heat dome that lasted from June 25 to July 1.
By contrast, two people died when a wildfire consumed the town of Lytton last summer, and at least five people died when a series of unprecedented rainstorms in November led to widespread flooding and debris slides.
The reluctance to use the system for heat events is a head-scratcher to Ashcroft mayor Barbara Roden. In 2018, her community hosted a pilot project with the province to see how small communities could respond to such heat events. That experience left Ashcroft prepared for last year: the community had paid for its own alert system, which was triggered when Ashcroft hit one of the province’s highest recorded temperatures – 48.1C on June 29.
“With all the disasters we’ve had, whether it’s fires or floods, communication is just such a huge, huge thing. Which is why so many people were scratching their heads at why the province did not put out a province-wide alarm during the heat dome,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
A report on the pilot project, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 2019, found positive outcomes, but the report also offered one clue about why the province was so cautious about using Alert Ready more broadly.
“It was recommended that the word ‘alert’ should be avoided, as it was flagged as a potential trigger in creating anxiety within the community due to recent threats from wildfires.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.