British Columbia

Faced with repeated crises, small municipalities confront climate mitigation challenges

As hundreds of people were trapped Sunday night between two landslides in the District of Kent, B.C., Mayor Sylvia Pranger was mulling over a worry that the latest climate disaster was partly influenced by another one three years ago.

Experts say higher levels of government need to help towns not just identify risks, but pay to fix them

A man walks his dog near a submerged Highway 1 on Wednesday after a major flood in Abbotsford, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As hundreds of people were trapped Sunday night between two landslides in the District of Kent, B.C., Mayor Sylvia Pranger was mulling over a worry that the latest climate disaster was partly influenced by another one three years ago. 

"After fires, we do need to do reforestation, and that has caused some of the issues. The Mount Hicks fire did destroy some of the hillside," she said, referring to a 2018 fire that burned 400 hectares in the area, about 115 kilometres east of Vancouver. 

Pranger said her municipality of approximately 6,000 people is in a much better place than it was two days ago. Flood waters have receded and people have been rescued from trapped vehicles. She believes the province did a good job stepping in once the severity of the situation through southern B.C. became known. 

But the cumulative effect of regularly preparing for and responding to wildfire and flood threats is hard for smaller municipalities to deal with.

"It just seems like we get one problem and you kind of deal with that, and there's another natural disaster," she said. 

Flooding in Princeton, B.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Spending money on planning — and upgrading

The B.C. government's initial insistence on Monday that local governments take the lead in emergency disaster response, from communication to mitigation, has been a consistent strategy for many years. 

At the same time, the sheer number of events happening in recent years, and the small budgets of many local governments, have some experts arguing for a slightly different approach.

"There's really important actions that governments need to be taking in order to better prepare for events," said Dylan Clark, a senior research associate for the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices. 

He said higher levels of government need to leverage their resources to give municipalities the ability to provide risk assessments for all residents, along with updated flood maps.

But direct action is also needed.

"It's really important that they start directing capital to more resilient infrastructure," he said. 

"It's a government shift from just identifying, to reducing risks."

'Still room to improve'

The B.C. government allows municipalities to apply to the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund, and over the years, several towns have received up to $150,000 for flood mapping or risk assessment studies. And in 2018, B.C. became the first province to adopt what is known as the Sendai Framework for disasters, an international system that emphasizes understanding disaster risk, and enhancing disaster preparedness.

But Garth Frizell, past president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a current Prince George councillor, said the province still lags behind when it comes to planning for hypothetical events that aren't tsunamis or earthquakes. 

"Around preparations for floods, fires and droughts, there's still room to improve," he said. 

"This is turning into a regular event for municipalities, and if we can prepare instead of just recovering after, we'll be doing a much better service. We're doing great with the tools that we've got, but we can be better."

For the government's part, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth changed his tone somewhat on Tuesday, no longer repeatedly emphasizing the need of municipalities to act first, and saying the province would consider using emergency alerts in the future. 

"This was an absolutely unprecedented deluge like we have never seen before," he said. 

"Obviously, after any event such as this, the province assesses what's taken place and lessons learned, and plans for the future."

As for Pranger, she says the District of Kent will ask the province about what could be done to make a response less difficult in case of another emergency. 

"We're doing the best we can," she said, "[but] we're a small municipality with limited resources."


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