DAWSON CREEK, B.C. — The Peace River Regional District has received an after-action report detailing the response to wildfires this spring.
The regional district is generally well-equipped to deal with incidents, noted Chad Pacholik with Logic League Consulting, who authored the report.
Pacholik appeared as a delegation by video to deliver the report at their August 17 board meeting and said local wildfires are being fuelled by climate change. He acknowledged it’s not limited to just the PRRD – 20,000 people have been ordered to evacuate Yellowknife in the wake of 240 fires burning in the Northwest Territories.
“While many people, I think, are calling this an unprecedented wildfire season, I think it’s really reflective of our new reality and what will become our new normal,” said Pacholik, noting that a drought year in 2022 exacerbated conditions, coupled with a hot and dry spring in 2023.
Providing the public with information remains critical to running any emergency operations centre (EOC), added Pacholik.
“The public information role is critical. And in recent years, the scope of that function has been increasing,” he said. “The PRRD was lucky to have someone who, in my opinion, is one of the best public information officers around during this emergency.”
In May, evacuation orders were made for the Red Creek and Stoddart Creek wildfires due to immediate danger and threat to life. More people are needed as public information officers, said Pacholik, with three to five more suitable for running an EOC.
“When properly managed, the information section relieves pressure on the rest of the response. During this activation, information to the public started a little bit rocky, but improved as the response went on,” said Pacholik.
He added that having the EOC located in their downstairs office hasn’t been effective for the PRRD, disruptive for both non-emergency and emergency operations, with a dedicated space needed. The EOC was moved several times after activation.
The wildfires were largely handled by external contractors, noted Pacholik, cautioning that local knowledge remains the most important part.
“So far, the solution that seems to have worked the best is that hybrid model, that bolsters that internal capacity and local knowledge, with the external contracted personnel,” said Pacholik. “As you know, we pointed out that in some of the past after action, we’ve used that dependence on external contractors, really can lead to inefficiencies due to the insufficient of the local geography, the relationships in place.”
While resourcing can be tough in the North, PRRD CAO Shawn Dahlen said he has confidence in how their EOCs have been operating, despite leaning on contractors, most of them are locals, or have local knowledge, and they rarely change – the same people are employed year after year.
“The contractors the regional district brings back on a regular basis are normally the same contractors, we rarely have a lot of new people in the EOC,” he said. “Our contractors are local for the most part, and the ones that aren’t local have been here multiple times and probably have more local knowledge than a lot of the employees in the regional district when it comes to administering an EOC.”
Fort St. John Mayor Lilia Hansen asked whether the PRRD has downloaded some EOC responsibilities from the province.
Pacholik said local governments should continue to train internal staff, reiterating how the hybrid model is used.
“Every local government and organization should be training their internal staff,” he said. “That’s not to say that external contractors can’t help increase the capacity, but it shouldn’t be a full contractor model, in my opinion.”
Taylor Mayor Brent Taillefer said he doesn’t want to lose the hard work and commitment of volunteers who keep many Emergency Support Services (ESS) running.
“I just don’t want to lose sight of ESS, and we have some great volunteers. The District of Taylor has had an ESS team for 25 years. While it has fluctuated up and down, it’s always been a very committed and good team,” said Taillefer.
“There is some talk about regionally what happens there, and I think those are good ideas, whether it’s a regional ESS or we come into it some way, but I do think there’s a lot of people in this area in the PRRD that want to step up and help when there are emergencies,” he added.
Area E Director Dan Rose says the after-action report echoes 2016 and noted there was no real interaction with the BC Wildfire Service.
“We ran through the same thing again this time. They don’t show up for the debrief, so we’re going to have to go seek them out and then figure out. This report is incomplete without everybody there,” he said. “There were no community meetings that gave the people an opportunity to talk about some of their frustrations and their opportunities, as far as what they saw that worked and didn’t work.”
Rose added he feels the PRRD did their best to manage the wildfire season with the resources they do have and that there could be an opportunity to develop capacity for local experts.
However, convincing members of the community to work for the BC Wildfire Service might be a tough sell, noted Rose, with more lucrative pay to be found in the oil and gas sector.
“Our BC Wildfire major command centre is in a different time zone than us for half the year,” added Rose. “I mean, if they’re not going to commit to resources to actually service this area and have the people in place of the local knowledge this year, so they’re not sending up teams from somewhere else that we got to try and lead around by the hand and teach them where to go and what to do.”
Furthermore, with new fire legislation expected by the province, it may be time for the PRRD to step aside and let the province manage to avoid downloading on local municipalities, says Rose.
PRRD Chair Leonard Hiebert said he feels that he’s been left in the dark many times by the BC Wildfire Service, despite signing evacuation orders and alerts. He’d like to see their communication improve.
“A lot of times, I felt I was left out in the dark. And I’m getting calls from directors, I’m getting calls, you know, who can I actually speak to – and I have nothing to give them because I don’t know,” he said.