Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
Dorothy Stecko works on the grounds of an Okanagan resort filling with tourists. She’s currently living in a nearby hotel, a place she was grateful to land after fire forced her from her home on Osoyoos Indian Band land earlier this week. The place where she’s staying has prioritized evacuees; the place where she works is hoping for a summer of tourist revenue to make up for the devastation of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Reporter Mike Hager delved into the challenges of finding a place to stay for the thousands of evacuees who have been forced to flee some 272 active wildfires burning in the province. Some of those fires are pushing people out of areas that are convenient to the popular Okanagan, where many tourists have also had months-long plans to finally travel.
“When a motel will take a tourist’s money before an evacuee, I think that’s pretty sad,” Ms. Stecko, a gardener and maintenance worker, told The Globe and Mail.
B.C.’s emergency planning agency is warning tourists to cancel their plans if their end destination has been ordered evacuated, or is on alert to evacuate. In the wake of the destruction of the town of Lytton late last month, some evacuees were made to drive for more than three hours, skirting highway closures, only to end up sleeping in designated centres as far away as Chilliwack, just east of Vancouver. When they arrived in Kamloops, some had trouble finding hotel rooms during the busy Canada Day long weekend.
Mayors in tourist and wildfire hotspots say this tension between those seeking leisure and those needing respite from a traumatizing evacuation is one that won’t quickly be resolved. That’s because this historic heat, which has already pulled B.C.’s wildfire season a month ahead of schedule, appears to be a sign of summers to come.
Pader Brach, executive director of regional operations at Emergency Management BC (EMBC), told reporters at a briefing Thursday that long journeys for evacuees are an unfortunate product of the unprecedented situation. He asked evacuees to stay with family or friends if they have that option. EMBC did not respond Friday to a Globe request for the limit the agency will pay to house an evacuee in a hotel, how many nights of this type of accommodation have been paid for this wildfire season or whether it plans on forcing hotel operators to open up rooms.
The Town of Oliver’s mayor, Martin Johansen, said EMBC is still trying to “wrap its head around” how to deal with a continuing flood of hundreds of new evacuees into the region. On a conference call Thursday with the agency, he said EMBC staff did not explain if the new provincial state of emergency allows town officials to commandeer hotel rooms.
The state of emergency is a relatively new thing. The province declared it earlier this week, even though the devastation of the fires has been acute since the end of last month. After a year in which the provincial NDP has been lauded for its management of the pandemic, relative to other governments, its performance during the twin crises of the heat dome and the ensuing fires has been less than stellar, Gary Mason writes today.
“After mocking the BC Liberal opposition’s calls for a state of emergency declaration, the government turned around and did exactly that this week. Suddenly, something that wasn’t deemed necessary became necessary, because it provided the government with powers and flexibility it desperately needs in dealing with the fallout from these fires. That includes mass evacuation scenarios,” Gary writes.
“You might have thought the government would have been more sensitive to the situation, given what happened in Lytton, where citizens were given little notice of what was about to happen to their little town. Communication was appalling.”
The Lytton fire moved so swiftly into the town’s borders that some have questioned whether anything more could have been done to save it. But it’s also not clear whether Canada’s national alert system, which pushes warnings to all the cellphones in a designated area, could have helped in the evacuation.
Colin Freeze reported this week that B.C. is the only province in the country never to have used the system since it became available in 2018. Emergency officials in neighbouring Alberta have used Alert Ready more than 70 times since 2019 – including 25 times for wildfires. Alert Ready vastly expanded the reach and immediacy of warnings once sent out only through televisions and radios.
But on its website, EMBC noted that Alert Ready was a system to be used by police for Amber Alerts and by the province to warn of tsunamis. As a result, municipalities have been left with a patchwork of systems, none of which has the reach of Alert Ready.
After The Globe’s report was published Thursday, Mr. Brach said EMBC would be preparing to ensure Alert Ready was in operation in B.C. and available for more than tsunamis. Whether that would happen in time to help out in this summer of fire, though, is unclear.
“We have to make sure that we get it right when we utilize Alert Ready and make sure that it complements and augments and doesn’t cross wires with some of the current alerting systems that are out there,” Mr. Brach said.