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Call a state of emergency over wildfires, Clearwater officials urge B.C. government

‘It’s time to try to get ahead of this as soon as we can’
The smoky skies as seen from the top of the hill overlooking the Strawberry Flats community in Clearwater. (Stephanie Hagenaars / Clearwater Times)

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell is calling on the B.C. government to declare a provincial state of emergency, following 100 new wildfires this week that have placed hundreds of properties throughout the Interior and Cariboo on evacuation order or alert.

“It’s time to try to get ahead of this as soon as we can, or at least get as many resources as we possibly can on the ground and in motion,” he said, citing the influx of evacuation alerts and orders, as well as a forecast for more hot weather. “This isn’t going to get better soon, so let’s start thinking that way.”

The push comes just over a week after the Thompson-Nicola Regional District Board defeated a motion to ask the province to declare a state of emergency. Concerns at the time included how it would affect regions not impacted by wildfires and if tourism would take a hit like it did after one was called in 2017.

The TNRD board of directors met again on July 15 and unanimously agreed to ask the B.C. government to declare a provincial state of emergency. This comes as 13 per cent of the region is under an evacuation order or alert and after the TNRD Emergency Operations Centre has declared six states of local emergency.

And as conditions persist and resources are strained, Blackwell said a provincial state of emergency is what the B.C. Interior needs right now. A state of emergency, he added, would allow forest professionals who know the wildfire-fighting system to temporarily break contracts and help on the front lines.

“I would just like to encourage them to pull the trigger on a state of emergency sooner than later - hopefully today (July 14) or tomorrow,” he said.

Peter Milobar, MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, said a state of emergency would also provide access to resources it wouldn’t normally have, such as equipment and personnel from the private sector and access to private lands. He and the BC Liberal caucus have been pushing for a state of emergency for weeks.

Similar requests have been made by Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson and Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond.

Former Green Party candidate Thomas Martin, a forestry professional and ex-firefighter, also expressed support for the move on Twitter.

“I am one of those experienced fireline personnel sitting on the sidelines,” he said in a tweet. “As are many other experienced personnel. It might come across as politics, but calls from politicians like @shirleybond for a SoE make sense.”

Martin also noted a fire near Clearwater had been commanded by local industry resources for roughly 10 days due to a lack of resources.

“At this particular point, the only crews I’m aware of in Clearwater is one initial attack crew and our locally-based helicopter,” Blackwell told the Times. “Most other resources that are part of government are being utilized for other actions.”

In 2017, when the town of Cache Creek was evacuated due to a wildfire, a state of emergency was declared just hours later on July 7 and lasted 70 days. The town of Lytton had moments to evacuate after a wildfire ripped through on June 30.

“We don’t know what it’s going to take for the Premier to acknowledge what is going on,” Milobar said. “He cannot sit in a smoke-free area of Victoria in his home and look out the window and assume that that’s what the rest of the province looks like.”

Emergency Management BC said the province is deploying all resources available in response to the wildfires, something a state of emergency isn’t required in order to do.

“While the extraordinary powers granted under a provincial emergency were used during the COVID-19 response, at no other time have these powers been necessary to respond to an incident,” EMBC told the Times in an email. “This includes the provincial emergencies declared for the 2003, 2017 and 2018 fire seasons. If a provincial emergency was not declared during those events, it would not have changed the response in any way.”

Approximately 2,500 people trained in wildfire response, including contractors and those out of province, as well as 148 aircraft are currently deployed in B.C. In addition, the Canadian Armed Forces were on the ground in Kamloops on July 14, ready to provide airlift evacuations and ground-based resources, as well as personnel, supplies and equipment, according to a post to the CAF Facebook page.

Furthermore, EMBC noted a state of emergency is not required to provide assistance, access funding or secure additional resources, including from the federal government, and one will be called on the advice of EMBC and BCWS.

“A provincial state of emergency will be enacted if, and when, it’s required,” EMBC said in the statement. “In the meantime, we continue to support and listen to the concerns of local governments and actively monitor the situation.”

In addition, a statement released July 15 from Mike Farnworth, minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, doesn’t mention a state of emergency, but said he wants “to ensure British Columbians that we are deploying all necessary and available personnel and equipment to respond to wildfires across the province.”

The federal government and the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre also are providing assistance and resources, including personnel and aircraft, he said.

On July 6, Farnworth told reporters the province would not be declaring a state of emergency, noting “all necessary and requested resources” had already been deployed to the affected areas, after viewing the devastation in Lytton. He also noted the government is waiting for the call from wildfire personnel on the ground.

But what they’re hearing right now, said Milobar, is the wildfire service acknowledging that they’re tapped and stretched out.

“If anyone believes the wildfire service would turn down extra resources, they’re kidding themselves,” he said, adding the province hasn’t been clear about how to provide relief to firefighters on the front lines. “You cannot expect people to work in this type of heat day in and day out for three straight months, it’s just not practical.”

As of July 15, there are 27 wildfires of note in B.C., eight of which are in the Kamloops Fire Centre and another nine in the Cariboo Fire Centre. There are 308 active fires in the province and 22 of them have been reported in the last two days, according to the BCWS dashboard.

- updated from a previous version to add recent vote information at TNRD meeting and to add response from EMBC

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