British Columbia

How do you evacuate all of Bowen Island? Municipality seeks plan to find out

What would happen if a disaster so powerful and devastating struck Bowen Island that the entire community had to be evacuated?

Bowen seeking disaster plan to handle wide variety of disasters and severities

Bowen Island is just a short ferry ride from the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal but even at the best of times, getting on and off the island via ferry can sometimes be challenging. How will the island cope with a major disaster? (Bridgette Watson/CBC)

What would happen if a disaster so powerful and devastating struck Bowen Island that the entire community had to be evacuated?

The island, a short ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay on B.C.'s Lower Mainland with a population of roughly 3,700, wants to know how such an evacuation could be performed and what it might look like.

The municipality posted a request for proposals online through B.C. Bid this month seeking emergency management consultants to devise a plan to deal with a wide variety of disaster scenarios — including a complete evacuation.

"We have some unique evacuation challenges that perhaps other communities don't face ... being an island," the municipality's emergency management coordinator Jennifer McGowan said.

"Not just the limited capacity of the ferry, obviously, which would have to make multiple trips to evacuate the whole population, but other things like parking at the ferry, managing thousands of vehicles, potentially."

McGowan said it would mark the first time the island would have such a plan, which she believes has long been needed.

Wildfires main concern

If a catastrophic earthquake, wildfire or windstorm prompted such an evacuation, a massive effort would be required, she said.

BC Ferries, the Canadian Coast Guard and search and rescue boats would be joined by any seaworthy vessel in the area to rapidly sail people off the island along with helicopters to fly them to safety.

"We'd be expecting private individuals to step forward," she suggested. "You look at what happened at 9/11 with evacuating New York. There were tons of private boat owners who shuttled people back and forth for hours."

In recent years, a number of record-setting wildfires seasons have torched the B.C. landscape. (Darryl Dyck/CP Images)

A complete evacuation is an extreme scenario, she said. What's much more likely, she added, are severe wildfires that could cause neighbourhoods to be ordered to pick up and leave.

"We've seen it happen in the Interior extensively and our risk of wildfires in particular is increasing on the coasts," she said.

Bowen Island is heavily forested, she said, and with many dead-end roads, "it only takes one large tree to come down and you're not able to access the ferry anymore."

Other island communities could do similar work

McGowan said funding issues have delayed this planning but new grants have been made available through the Union of B.C. Municipalities to develop plans across the province.

The Capital Regional District has received one of those grants. It has several Gulf Islands in its jurisdiction, including Salt Spring Island with over 10,000 residents.

It is developing a region-wide evacuation plan but emergency manager Conrad Cowan said it's too early to tell if those plans will include complete evacuations of islands.

Public safety manager Keir Gervias of the Cowichan Valley Regional District — which includes Thetis Island and Penelakut Island — said there were some evacuation plans in place but is hopeful grant money could improve those plans.

A spokesperson for Emergency Management B.C. said local governments are required to have emergency plans in place but the province does not dictate what those plans must account for or consider.

'Reassurance'

Bowen was allotted $25,000 for its plan through a UBCM grant, McGowan said, and Emergency Management B.C. said the province has kicked in $100,000 as well.

McGowan said spending money on an emergency plan is important, even if it's never needed, with change in climate increasing the number of disaster events — wildfires in particular.

"I think it certainly helps the whole sense of reassurance," she added. "I know individuals on the island think that one already exists."

McGowan said the goal is to have a plan in place by the end of the year.

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