British Columbia

Alert Ready system to be in place for B.C. wildfires by June but not for heat domes

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth says an automated alert system will be ready to warn British Columbia residents of spring flooding and summer wildfires but not for extreme heat.

Canada-wide system allows governments to issue public alerts through major broadcasters, mobile devices

The Sparks Lake fire was first reported on June 28, 2021, about an hour northwest of Kamloops. (BC Wildfire Service/Twitter)

An automated alert system will be ready to warn British Columbians of spring flooding and summer wildfires but not yet for extreme heat, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Tuesday.

Farnworth told a news conference the Alert Ready system is all set for the spring thaw and will be in place by early June for wildfires. The system is an extra tool to help communities respond to the increasing threats posed by climate change, he said.

However, officials are still deciding when it should be used in the case of hot weather, similar to the so-called heat dome the province experienced last summer.

"Right now, there's work that's underway with the Ministry of Health in terms of what the parameters should be in terms of a heat warning. That's something that is coming,'' Farnworth said.

Alert Ready is a system available across Canada that allows government officials to issue public safety alerts through television and radio broadcasters, as well as compatible wireless devices.

While the system is co-ordinated provincially, it is up to local government officials to use it. In extreme cases, the province can intervene and put out an alert directly, Farnworth said.

The system is only one of the ways that officials warn the public of imminent danger and won't replace door-knocking or police telling residents they need to evacuate, he added.

"It is a tool, not a silver bullet,'' Farnworth said.

A man carrying multiple jugs of water walks through a sprinkler during a period of record breaking temperatures in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, June 29, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The B.C. government came under fire for not using the system to warn residents about scorching temperatures, which the B.C. Coroners Service later said caused nearly 600 heat-related deaths.

At the time, the province said it was only prepared to use Alert Ready for tsunamis and Amber Alerts for abducted children.

Almost two weeks after heavy rains in November began causing fatal mudslides and surging rivers that displaced thousands of people, the government said it was prepared to use Alert Ready to issue flood warnings.

Farnworth said Tuesday that while officials were prepared to use it in some areas if necessary last fall, it is now in place for use provincewide.

A test of the system is planned for Wednesday at 1:55 p.m.

Farnworth announced the expansion as forecasters said the spring flood risk has increased in some areas. At the same time, they warned that both climate change and last year's disasters are making predictions more difficult.

Spring flooding usually peaks in May and June and is caused by a combination of rainfall, temperatures and snowpack levels.

A road is surrounded by floodwaters in the Sumas Prairie flood zone in Abbotsford, British Columbia on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The snowpack is now 114 per cent above normal levels on average, up from near-normal conditions April 1, with higher amounts in the Interior and northern mountain ranges, said Dave Campbell of the River Forecast Centre.

April was cool, which could increase the risk of flooding if temperatures swing up in the next few weeks, causing rapid run-off, he said.

Bobby Sekhon of Environment Canada said it will be important to get enough rain in June to protect against wildfires, while not so much that flooding is a problem. That's especially true in the Interior, which had a dry April relative to the rest of the province.

"It's going to be a fine balance,'' Sekhon said.

Both said they are watching British Columbia's Interior, where wildfires and floods have changed the landscape and created new vulnerabilities.

Leaders of communities still recovering from last year's wildfires and floods expressed mixed reactions to news of the system expansion.

Mayor Henry Braun of Abbotsford, B.C., said it was welcome.

"Having a clear process and tools in place prior to an emergency occurring will help complement a community's response as they manage a local emergency,'' he said in a statement.

Chief Arnie Lampreau of the Shackan Indian Band said the community would need cell towers installed nearby for phone notifications to reach residents on the reserve along Highway 8.

Mayor Linda Brown of Merritt, the community of 7,000 that was evacuated, said cell notifications seem like the best alert option.

However, she also wondered if the system would work if other early warning mechanisms failed. Gauges on the Coldwater River failed in November and city staff who were walking the river warned of the threat, she said.

Brown also said she hoped details would be made clear about whether the use of Alert Ready would affect jurisdiction over which level of government leads the emergency response.

"There are still challenges and overlaps that need to be reviewed.''