About Emergency Planning and Evacuation

[Long rant]

For the last couple of months we’ve been watching dramatic and disturbing footage of wildfires in Hawaii, Greece, and across Canada. With BC in a provincial state of emergency, it’s no surprise that emergencies and evacuations are very much on people’s minds.

A question that I keep getting asked is: is there an evacuation plan for the Sunshine Coast? The trouble is, that’s not the right question. A better question is: what process is in place for dealing with emergencies on the Sunshine Coast?

We can’t plan for everything. It isn’t possible. Previous emergency planning focused on what seemed like the highest risk: earthquake. And what did we get? A global pandemic, a cyber attack, atmospheric rivers, a heat dome, and a province-wide drought.

On September 1, local elected officials were invited to sit down with SCRD Emergency Management Coordinator, Nancy Hughes. Two days before, there was a small wildfire in Sechelt, so she walked us through the response, step by step. (You can also watch her presentation on this at our September 14 COW meeting. It starts at 1:03.)

The Sechelt Fire Department, BC Wildfire and the SCRD Emergency Program were alerted about the fire. Immediately our Emergency Program started creating an evacuation plan, in case the fire burned out of control and it became necessary to activate our emergency operations centre (EOC). They located the fire on a map and drew a 2 km circle around it to identify properties at risk, and critical infrastructure. They then generated a list of residential addresses within the area.

If an emergency was declared, an alert would go out to cell phones and landlines via Voyent Alert, but we don’t rely on that alone. In case of evacuation, teams go door to door. They have a system of colour-coded ribbons they leave on doorknobs indicating whether property owners have been alerted and whether they have evacuated.

On Sept. 29, the wildfire in Sechelt was extinguished quickly, so emergency preparations stopped. But they were ready to go.

We have a process in place for EOC activations. And we’ve had lots of practise, having had 13 EOC activations between 2020 and 2022. Those events gave our staff real familiarity with the process, and also helped us build relationships with all the other agencies on the coast that are involved in emergencies, including local governments, fire departments, provincial emergency services, RCMP, land and marine Search and Rescue, Coast Guard, BC Hydro, Fortis, Capilano Highways, the hospital, etc. The list goes on.

It is very unlikely that any emergency would equally affect all of the SCRD. We’re a string of small communities (and islands) with different microclimates, water supplies, and topography. In the case of a major regional disaster, such as an earthquake, we would likely have to shelter in place.

Our Emergency Coordinator recommends that you be prepared to be self sufficient for 144 hours (6 days). The usual advice is 72 hours, but we are isolated here, and in a disaster Metro Vancouver would get first priority. There is a huge amount of advice online about preparing “grab and go” kits, but there is no one size fits all solution. People’s families and needs are different, and guidelines have to be appropriate for this region (e.g. storing food in your car will just create a bear snack pack).

Neighbourhood evacuation planning is underway. Three plans have been done so far; Egmont, Tuwanek, and the Gibsons Bay/Bluff area. The neighbourhood plans will feed up into a larger strategy. But I’m going to say this bluntly: having a plan will not magically create more roads. We have many areas with only one access road, not to mention the vulnerability of Cow Path 101. A major evacuation would be very very difficult.

What we need is neighbourhood preparedness. In an emergency neighbours help neighbours because we’re right there.

Finally, I’m going to point that what residents say we want and what we’re willing to pay for are two different things. The SCRD is responsible for emergency planning. It’s funded through local taxes, not by the province. We have one full time staff member dedicated to emergency planning. Meanwhile, we have 30 staff running our recreation facilities (plus many casual staff). Until recently, the SCRD spent more money on recreation facilities than on water and fire protection combined. But any suggestion that we cut back on ice time or pool hours is inevitably met with howls of outrage.

We used to live in Lotus Land. Now we live in a land reeling from climate emergencies. And since taxpayers don’t have bottomless pockets, we need to rethink our priorities.

For more information on Emergency Preparedness, please see the SCRD’s Emergency Preparedness FAQ.

Posted by Donna