Do you know where you’d go if Campbell River had to evacuate because a wildfire was threatening our community?
With the province of B.C. currently under a Provincial State of Emergency due to wildfires ravaging the interior, thousands of evacuated families eagerly watching for updates on whether they have homes to return to and exhausted firefighters doing their best to keep the damage to a minimum, Strathcona Regional District (SRD) protective services coordinator Shaun Koopman says there isn’t a more opportune time to examine your own preparedness should such a situation occur on Vancouver Island.
“The reality is that we could face the exact situation they’re facing in the interior any second.”
What would that look like? Is our area ready should a wildfire situation flare up?
“We actually have community wildfire prevention plans for every community and incorporated area in the SRD,” Koopman says. “They’re all available to the public and they talk about the history of fires in the area, what caused them, how private industry – such as Timberwest – does to mitigate risk and how they interact with us, gives recommendations and even examines areas of the highest risk.”
But prevention plans can only do so much, especially considering that the historical average province wide, Koopman says, is that about 40 per cent of wildfires are human-caused, while the other 60 per cent are caused by lightning. In and around Campbell River, 89 per cent of the fires since 1964 have been caused by people.
Admittedly, a large part of that is because when we get rain, it’s not generally accompanied by lightning, “but with that many human caused fires throughout our history, it speaks to the importance of public education.”
And while part of that education involves informing people about the risks of fire and giving them the tools to be part of the solution – responsible fire use practices, not throwing cigarette butts out their window, etc. – another part is educating them about what they need to know should a wildfire threaten our community.
One of the difficulties that emergency services personnel deal with during a major event, “and they saw it out in the Interior,” Koopman says, “is that people aren’t familiar with the protocols and procedures that go along with an evacuation, because they weren’t educated in those beforehand.”
For example, many people don’t know the difference between an evacuation order and an evacuation alert.
“You should always have your grab-and-go bags ready to go at any given time, but if you don’t, when you get an evacuation alert, that’s your call to start getting things together,” Koopman says. “It means you could be asked to leave at any time. It may just be a precaution. That being said, if you have mobility issues, special needs, if you’re extra sensitive to smoke, if you have animals and livestock, that’s when you should be looking at starting to leave.”
Should an evacuation order be issued – the next stage after an evacuation alert – it’s time for everyone to go.
In an ideal situation, emergency services personnel – usually RCMP or Search and Rescue personnel – will go door-to-door and hand deliver notices of evacuation. They will mark on a sheet whether you were home to receive the order, have been notified, may need assistance to evacuate, have already evacuated or have been notified but have refused to leave. They will then mark your house with a ribbon, the colour of which tells other emergency responders the state of those residents’ notification level.
“We need to keep track of who is gone, where are people going, who have we talked to, what other resources might we need to bring in to help evacuate people,” Koopman says. “It’s also very important that people don’t remove those ribbons and if they leave before someone comes to talk to them, to leave a note of some kind so we know where they are.”
The main source of communication that will be used, however, is the SRD’s newly launched mass communication system.
Residents and visitors are asked to sign up for notifications at strathconard.connectrocket.com to receive notifications of hazards and emergencies right to their phone or email inbox.
While it’s impossible to say in advance which way Campbell River would evacuate should it need to, Koopman says, “we will do everything in our power to evacuate people south, because if you evacuate north, what’s there for you? Port Hardy and Sayward simply can’t take in 10,000 people. Logistically, it would be very, very difficult to get that many people evacuated north or west.”
But what Koopman really wants people to know is that the whole process of an evacuation gets a lot easier for everyone involved when people have a plan in place for themselves ahead of time. If you have friends or family in other areas, touch base with them once in a while and see if you can go stay with them should you need to. Confirm that your pets can come, too. Just have the conversation, hoping you’ll never need to follow through, Koopman says, because it makes everyone’s lives easier in the long run should something happen.
Apart from knowing what things mean and having a plan in place for your own family should things go sideways, Koopman says, the one message he wants people to get is to listen to emergency services when they tell you what you need to do.
“It’s never an easy decision for emergency personnel to make, and it’s not one that is made lightly,” Koopman says. “If someone comes to your door with that letter, you know we’re serious.”