Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.
Brian Stocks is president of BJ Stocks Wildfire Investigation Ltd. and an adjunct professor of forestry at the University of Toronto.
Much is being written about the village of Lytton, B.C., almost completely obliterated by wildfire the evening of June 30 after handily breaking the Canadian high temperature record the day prior. A neighbourhood in Kamloops, B.C., came very close to experiencing a similar fate the evening of July 1, after a lightning-sparked fire forced homes in the Juniper area to be evacuated twice in one night. At 1 a.m. on July 2, the City issued an evacuation order to some 336 residents of 126 homes just one hour after rescinding an earlier such order. That order was withdrawn after a timely thunderstorm appeared to knock down the blaze, though the relief proved only temporary.
The scene of roads in Juniper choked by rushed evacuees was not unlike what was witnessed during the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., in November, 2018. An eleventh-hour evacuation order led to people being incinerated in their vehicles as they frantically attempted to get out of town, only to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on overloaded roads.
In June of that year, 60 people were killed in Portugal during severe wildfires, including 30 burned to death in their vehicles while trying to escape.
Sometimes, fires are sparked so rapidly that even when evacuation notices are issued quickly and area residents take immediate action, they still only get out by the skin of their teeth. Lytton burned in just 15 minutes.
However, more often than not, there is time to issue orderly evacuation notices and start to get people out in a measured, non-frantic way. Yet, it appears that these opportunities are seldom taken.
But hoping that it rains or that the wind changes direction at the last minute is not a strategy. This is particularly true of the wildfires we will experience in the years ahead due to climate change – the ones we are also actually experiencing now.
Time and time again, we see that a lack of imagination – the inability to see the worst-case scenario ahead of time – leads to very dangerous predicaments. Yet we keep getting caught with our pants down.
In the case of the Camp Fire, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known as CalFire) appeared confident that a wildland fire outside the town of Paradise would not jump a canyon and put the area at risk. Even when residents of Paradise began phoning in reports of thick smoke, and ash falling on the town, CalFire dispatchers assured them they were safe. When fire did enter the community and the evacuation notice was issued by local authorities, no one appeared to be more surprised than CalFire dispatchers, with one recorded as saying, “Are you serious?” The fire was the deadliest in California history, with 86 killed – seven in their cars.
In the early hours of what would become Canada’s costliest wildfire disaster, the May, 2016, event in Fort McMurray, Alta., the thinking was that the community was safe because the Athabasca River ran between the fire and the city. But with ultra-dry conditions and high winds, those assumptions soon proved wrong as embers carried over the river, igniting numerous structures in town. About 2,400 buildings were lost, leading to insured damage of $3.64-billion.
Roads out of neighbourhoods throughout the city were choked with evacuees in standstill traffic as embers rained down. Two were killed in a vehicular accident during the evacuation.
And this is the thing: All-too-many remote Canadian communities that are exposed to wildfire have but one way out – sometimes two ways when a single highway runs through town.
A scene similar to Fort McMurray played out in Slave Lake, Alta., in May, 2011, with news coverage stating the fires “took everyone by surprise.” It was later reported by The Globe and Mail that an evacuation order from the province was never issued and that the mayor “unilaterally issued the order much later in the evening – because she had to wait for the province to reopen the highway out of town.”
Meanwhile, following the recent fires, Kamloops residents signed a petition urging the city to improve evacuation plans for Juniper, including construction of a second paved road out of the area. Within days of the petition, the city announced plans to fast-track the road.
Fort McMurray, on the other hand, received $5-million in 2017 to study a second highway out of the city – but there’s still no word yet on the status of that study or whether the road will be built.
As these types of wildfire events increase across the globe, we must be thinking farther out on this issue than we have been – because, as we have clearly seen, the disaster caused by such blazes can happen right here.
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