'It's a dangerous place if there's a big tsunami': coastal communities get new warning sirens

Parts of the West Coast lacked any functional warning system, but officials hope five new sirens will mitigate the risks of a monster wave.

Port Renfrew, Pacheedaht First Nation and Jordan River testing sirens to get residents to high ground

A tsunami could devastate vast swaths of Vancouver Island — not all of which is protected by emergency warning sirens. (Melissa Renwick/Canadian Press)

Vancouver Island residents in densely-populated areas fled their homes — or, in some cases, slept through text alerts — in January at the urging of a siren system.

 But until this week, those in smaller communities had no such protection.

January's tsunami scare set off sirens in Tofino and Port Alberni, warning residents of a tsunami risk from a 7.9-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Alaska in the early hours of the morning.

The blaring alarms had residents scrambling for the hills. But people living in coastal communities outside the two districts questioned their own warning systems.

After January's threat, Capital Regional District area director Mike Hicks said the province offered to install five new sirens in the coastal B.C. communities of Port Renfrew, Pacheedaht First Nation and Jordan River.

 "It's a dangerous place if there's a big tsunami," Hicks told On The Island host Gregor Craigie.

The communities lie right in the path of a monster wave in what's called the Cascadia subduction zone, a high-risk area for quakes and waterborne destruction that stretches from Haida Gwaii, B.C., to California.

Despite their location, the communities had no remotely-operable sirens, Hicks said, pointing to problems with the aging alarms the new system will replace. 

"In one, we found a rat had eaten the wires," Hicks said. "You had to set it off manually."

A text alert, like the one received — and in many cases not seen — by some Victoria residents in January, wouldn't work in the Port Renfrew area, much of which doesn't receive cell service.

"The siren's the only way to do it," Hicks said. "Get 'em up, get 'em out."

A tsunami evacuation sign on Vancouver Island, which is dotted with coastal communities at risk of major destruction. (Shiral Tobin)

The province, which Hicks credits with initiating the project, footed the $500,000 bill for four new sirens in Port Renfrew, while B.C. Hydro paid for the single Jordan River siren.

The CRD will oversee the installation of the new system in partnership with the University of British Columbia.

It's a "900 per cent improvement" from the previous system, Hicks said.

Last month in Port Alberni, a city devastated by a tsunami in 1964, Mayor Mike Ruttan activated the area's four tsunami sirens at around 3 a.m. PT.

"The warning was repeated every 10 minutes for two minutes [in duration]," he said. "They're very loud, there's no way you can ignore them. And then in between time, the paper mill was blowing its horns for extended periods of time to let people know there was civic emergency."

Port Renfrew, home to only a couple hundred people, fills up with campers and surfers in the summer months, Hicks noted.

Someone monitoring for a high-magnitude quake can set off the new alarms remotely, alerting people to the danger and getting them to high ground.

Evacuation from sea level isn't the most worrisome factor for officials, Hicks said. 

"The problem is waking people up. This takes care of it."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Island