The City of Kamloops says it will make communication improvements in the wake of the Canada Day fire, which was sparked by lightning between Valleyview and Juniper Ridge.
“Getting the information out to people as soon as possible will be, I think, a key learning from this,” Deputy Mayor Arjun Singh told KTW.
The city faced criticism over communication during last week’s fire, including questions about initial social media posts, evacuation orders issued, then rescinded, then issued again and confusion over evacuation routes, including gates on egress routes in Juniper West remaining locked.
On Tuesday (July 6) during a press conference, city staff addressed gaps in communication.
Communications manager Wendy Heshka said communication was “delayed.” In a timeline provided to media, the city received reports of fire in the hills between Valleyview and Juniper at 8 p.m. on July 1 and activated its multi-agency emergency operations centre 90 minutes later, at 9:30 p.m.
The first official communication, including a press release and social media posts, did not come until 10:50 p.m. The first press release was received by media at 10:53 p.m., the first Facebook post was published at 10:55 p.m. and the first tweet on Twitter went out at 11:08 p.m.
Heshka said the EOC put out the information within minutes of receiving verified information from the incident commander.
“The priority in those first few minutes, when there’s no time to issue an evacuation alert, is a tactical response of door-knocking,” Heshka said.
“So, the people immediately at risk were receiving face-to-face communication. All of that led to a press release coming out a little bit later, social posts coming out a little bit later and that will be part of the debrief that we undertake in a few weeks to look at what could be done differently, how we could improve that response.”
At 11:30 p.m., the city sent out communications stating the fire was under control and evacuation orders had been rescinded. The statement said Valleyview and Juniper Ridge residents could return home. Subsequent communication an hour later stated another evacuation was occurring.
Kamloops Fire Chief Steve Robinson said the wind, weather and fire direction changed, prompting another evacuation order. The precise number of properties evacuated at each time in the night could not be provided.
Singh said that while professionals had the situation under control, he conceded that is “cold comfort” to those who sat in traffic for 45 minutes in Juniper East, watching the glow from the fire. He said he had a conversation with someone who thought they were going to die in their car or, at the very least, lose their home.
Despite RCMP officers knocking on doors of those deemed to be in danger and ordered to leave, others inevitably fled from the highly visible fire. It was perhaps those people, who did not receive a door knock, who were left with the most questions about what to do as they saw the smoke and flames, read myriad anecdotal social media posts, saw others fleeing and received messages and calls from concerned friends and family.
Adding to the angst was the fact the fire appeared to be growing quickly, with news of the fiery devastation of Lytton fresh in the minds of the public. The Fraser Canyon town was razed by fire a day before the Kamloops blaze.
City communiques did advise of specific areas under evacuation. Notably, however, neither the press release, nor Facebook Twitter posts, advised of preferred evacuation routes.
On Tuesday, the city made clear it did not consider Juniper West egress routes located at Coldwater Drive and Galore Crescent to be safe, due to them being unlit, unmarked and unpaved. Even with the wait time factored into getting down Highland Road, the city said that was the safest route out of Juniper Ridge.
Acting civic operations director Greg Wightman said he understands the wait caused fear and anxiety in residents, but noted other plans were in the works had the situation changed. Asked what the city would tell residents who broke through gates that night as they fled the flames, Wightman said difficult decisions were made.
“When we looked at having an access road out of Juniper that was paved, that was lit — that was Highland Drive [Road],” he said. “Knowing full well it was going to lead to congestion, understanding the fear and the anxiety of people sitting on there, it was still the safer route. … Now, had the risk shifted, had Highland Drive become the risky option, we were prepared to open those other access points. Residents did take it upon themselves to do that and that was certainly not a recommendation of the city because we feel very strongly that the safer access out of Juniper was Highland Drive.”
Perhaps a simple social media post or line in a press release could have helped prevent chaos that night, a post to let residents know they need only evacuate if someone knocks on their door and that they should take Highland Road, even if waits occur, as it is the safest route and there is adequate time.
City CAO David Trawin said he would be recommending to council implementation of the Voyent Alert app.
The app is utilized by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, which, to complicate matters, sent out a Tweet the morning of the fire, urging residents to sign up for emergency alerts.
Asked why the city had not already been using the emergency alert app, Trawin told KTW the city had been looking into utilizing the technology in a more fulsome way than that utilized by the regional district.
Heshka said she has been vocal about wanting that technology for a couple of months, but noted there is a long process to procure software. She met with the TNRD to learn ways in which it utilizes Voyent Alert and said Kamloops can use it not only to provide evacuation alerts in the event of a fire, but also to alert parents, for example, when schools are placed under hold and secure measures.
The cost estimate for the software is about $100,000 for five years.
“It just doesn’t move very fast, but this escalated it,” Heshka said.