As Premier John Horgan and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth defer to the professionals on whether to declare a state of emergency due to wildfires, the chair of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District has a question: “What in the world does it take to make it necessary?”
Ken Gillis called the wildfire situation in mid-July “dire.” “We’ve got half the province on fire. What are they waiting for?” Gillis asked in a conversation with KTW.
The TNRD board voted on Thursday (July 15) to request the province issue a state of emergency.
On Friday, more than 300 fires were burning in the province, many of them in and around the Kamloops area. The city is full of evacuees from the region and has for many days been socked in with wildfire smoke, prompting the municipality to open Sandman Centre for respite, daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Gillis said provincial powers flow from a state of emergency. KTW reached out to the province for more details on the threshold for declaring a state of emergency and is awaiting a call back.
B.C.’s Emergency Program Act states a declaration may be made if an emergency exists or is imminent. It can be declared for all of British Columbia or any part of the province.
Once made, a declaration gives the province extraordinary powers outlined in the Act. Some of those powers include:
• Acquiring land use or personal property to prevent or alleviate effects of an emergency;
• Controlling or prohibiting travel to or from any area in British Columbia;
• Authorizing entry into any building or land without a warrant;
• Removing trees, structures or crops;
• Fixing prices or rationing supplies.
In addition, the legislation includes a broad sweeping clause allowing the province to “implement a provincial emergency plan or any provincial emergency measures.”
In some cases, such declaration can take away rights, which is why it should be used sparingly.
Kamloops Coun. Arjun Singh noted the “intensity” of the situation, including Lytton having largely burned to the ground, and hearing concern from North Thompson mayors Ward Stamer (Barriere) and Merlin Blackwell (Clearwater), who compare the situation to that of the 2003 wildfires.
Singh said the regional district wants to have every resource available — and quickly. He said a fire can arrive with speed, noting powers should be in place prior to them being needed.
Lytton residents had minutes to flee a fire in their community on June 30.
During the wildfires of 2017, Singh said, few if any of those powers were utilized, but they were available. He said if the tools are available, they would be able to be utilized immediately — perhaps the difference between a day or hours, precious moments in an emergency situation.
Singh called speed and uncertainty the key point.
“As we saw in Kamloops, we had this lightning strike and ,suddenly, it was on, we needed to do things,” Singh said in reference to the Canada Day wildfire that ignited between Juniper Ridge and Valleyview.
“Obviously, we’ll do things as and where we have to, for sure, but we also have to have the ability to take powers as far as we might need them,” Singh said.
In addition to extraordinary powers, Gillis said the province needs to establish the wildfire situation as an emergency before a request can be made for federal funding, which is called disaster financial assistance arrangements. He said the province would also be in a better position to request boots on the ground from the federal government.
“We’ve already got some military coming, I understand, but I also understand that it would make the province’s position much stronger,” Gillis said.
“That stands to reason for me, in the sense that if I were a federal minister, probably defence, and the province asked me for assistance, military assistance, I would be inclined to say: ‘Why do you need this? You haven’t even declared an emergency yet.’”
TNRD CAO Scott Hildebrand said his relationship and communication with provincial staff has been “exceptional.” However, he added he struggles with the federal response.
Singh further added RCMP resources are getting stretched.
“When we’re struggling with finding security folks or checkpoint people or RCMP, they are all tapped out right now. We don’t have the resources to deal with,” Hildebrand said, noting the regional district does not have the power to call in military where needed and that the request lies with the province.
Meanwhile, as the situation poses a risk to the public and human-caused fires remain of concern, Stamer said a state of emergency gives the situation heightened awareness. He said it flags for residents and tourists the severity of the situation.
“It means to be aware of your surroundings,” Stamer said. “When you’re walking around downtown Kamloops, you may not be thinking of that. But last week, when Juniper was on fire, it had everybody in Kamloops’ attention. I think we just want to make sure that people are thinking about that in the back of their mind.”
On Friday, when asked why he will not call a provincial state of emergency, Horgan said that when a state of emergency was declared in the past, it was done so at the advice of Emergency Management BC and BC Wildfire Service, not politicians.
“I’m absolutely prepared to call a state of emergency when it is required by those professionals that are putting their lives on the line to protect families, property and British Columbia,” he said.
During a wildfire update press conference on Thursday, Brendan Ralfs of Emergency Management BC said declaring a state of emergency is primarily a legislative tool.
“During this current event, a provincial declaration of a state of emergency has not been necessary to provide assistance to people, to access funding or to co-ordinate or obtain additional resources, including federal assets,” he said.
The Canadian Armed Forces have arrived at Kamloops Airport and are aiding in the wildfire fight.
Ralfs said a state of emergency will be declared if and when required.