British Columbia

Flood and wildfire review calls for better communication with First Nations

An independent review into last year’s devastating wildfires and floods in B.C. has found better communication and coordination is needed with First Nations communities.

B.C. spent $550 million on last summer's wildfires, which displaced 65,000 people

Fires burned more of B.C. in 2017 than any year since 1961. (Shawn Cahill)

An independent review into last year's devastating wildfires and floods in B.C. has found better communication and coordination is needed with First Nations communities.

The report makes more than 100 recommendations on how the B.C government can improve its response to natural disasters.

Many of the recommendations address issues such as the need to include Indigenous communities as true partners during planning and decision making.

"We are not just a community or a stakeholder. We are governments equal to local, provincial and federal governments," said report co-author Chief Maureen Chapman of the Skawahlook First Nation.

"Making those alliances across whatever boundaries people create, whether it is municipalities or cities or reserve lines, is something that needs to  be set aside."

The report also calls on governments to build cultural sensitivity training and awareness of racism and discrimination into emergency management plans and to encourage the integration of traditional knowledge.

Better preparation

The report also notes there is a growing gap between the amount of money the province spends on responding to disasters and the funds available for prevention.

A multi-year prevention strategy is needed, said report co-author George Abbott, a former Liberal MLA.

"I salute what government has done and what government is doing, but we have, I think, given the magnitude of the challenge a significantly long way to go yet," he said.

Some of the other 108 recommendations include:

  • a re-evaluation of all 200-year return-period flood elevations
  • steps to reduce the vulnerability of structures to fires
  • establish centres of excellence in interior locations to support large-scale disaster response
  • build a 'one-stop-shop' emergency communications website
  • mandate the insurance industry to create an incentive program to encourage a proactive approach to emergency preparedness

Provincial officials say there is no estimate on what it would cost to implement all 108 recommendations in the report.

But 19 of the recommendations have been addressed based on internal reviews by ministries into last summer's wildfire and flood response, said Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Doug Donaldson.
 

A record-breaking season

The province spent $550 million fighting the wildfires, which displaced 65,000 people and destroyed 1.2 million hectares of forest.

No lives were lost, but some residents questioned whether officials did enough to save homes.

The review was conducted by George Abbott, a former B.C. Liberal MLA and Maureen Chapman, a hereditary chief of the Skawahlook First Nation.

They held community consultations and toured damaged areas of the province. 

The remains of mobile homes destroyed by wildfire in Boston Flats as a fire burned on a mountain east of Cache Creek, B.C., on Sunday July 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Independent review necessary

Individual government ministries also conducted their own reviews.

But an independent report was called for because of the severity of the situation, said Doug Donaldson, the minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

"We had internal reports done about how the government responded to these situations and we just felt with the scope and scale of what was experienced that an independent report was justified as well," he said.

The 2017 fires were preceeded by severe flooding in the B.C. Interior. Communities such as Cache Creek, Kelowna, Vernon and Dawson Creek were hit hard.

The fires and floods combined resulted in the largest claim in history — estimated at $400 million — under Canada's Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements.

An RCMP officer stands on the road in the Williams Lake area. The entire city was placed under an evacuation alert during the 2017 wildfires. (CBC)

About the Author

Megan Thomas

Reporter

Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.