British Columbia

COVID-19 forces B.C. authorities to rethink emergency response to wildfires and floods

Operations centres are having to plan how to carry out evacuations from at-risk areas while following the public health orders of maintaining physical distancing and self-isolation.

Physical distancing, self-isolation now vital considerations in evacuation plans

Recruits in training for wildfire season in May 2019. Measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 require additional emergency planning to the usual concerns over fire and floods. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Emergency officials in B.C. are modifying their usual preparations for the approaching flood and wildfire seasons to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Operations centres are having to plan how to carry out evacuations from at-risk areas while following the public health orders of maintaining physical distancing and self-isolation.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen is one district currently working with Emergency Management B.C. and other partners on procedures for spring, when high river levels can bring floods to the area.

While the COVID-19 pandemic adds a new dimension to their plans, preparing for the unexpected goes hand in hand with the centres' missions, says Erick Thompson, information officer for the regional district.

"Our training and education has gone on throughout the winter and that really hasn't stopped, and this really is just one other incident to look at," he told Carolina de Ryk, host of CBC's Daybreak North.

A ranch in Big Creek, B.C. is overwhelmed by flood water from the Chilcotin River in early July 2019. (Randy Saugstad)

Physical distancing would have to be taken into consideration from the moment an evacuation order was issued, for example, with RCMP going door to door to alert affected homes.

Evacuees are usually required to register at reception centres. Thompson says the district is looking at going digital with registration to avoid people having to stand around with pen and paperwork.

The regional district is also stepping up cleaning in reception centres with COVID-19 cleaning kits.

"We would have to ensure physical distancing to protect not only folks who have been evacuated from their homes but also volunteers as well," Thompson said.

When people are evacuated from their homes, they are at first settled in hotel rooms, which Thompson says makes self-isolation easier in that family units can be settled in the same room.

Authorities not panicking

The provincial government confirmed advance preparations are in full swing for the spring's high river levels, often referred to as freshet. 

"That is something that we're really concerned about, and we have advanced planning units ... getting ready for preparations for the upcoming freshet," said parliamentary secretary for emergency preparedness Jennifer Rice.

"It's going to be difficult. And it is challenging. And there are certain circumstances where we have to do the best that we can with what we have."

Thompson says despite concerns at all levels of government, plans are going ahead as they normally would.

"I don't feel that anybody, whether it's at the local level, regional districts, or municipalities, or at the provincial, or federal Liberals, anyone is panicking by any means."

Tips and planning for homeowners

In the meantime, Thompson says there are steps homeowners can take to prepare for spring and summer weather events in order to minimize their impact.

"We do want to always remind homeowners and business owners as well ... to start looking at what has happened in your area in the past," he said.

That can include preparing sandbags around your home to protect it from flooding, or clearing your yard of debris, dead wood, and other waste that can fuel fire.

Listen to the interview with Erick Thompson on CBC's Daybreak North:

B.C.'s emergency operations centres would normally be spending this time preparing for flood and wildfire season, but that's been complicated by managing a new crisis: COVID-19. 6:19

With files from Daybreak North

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