Unclear Tweet triggered 'panic' during wildfires: PRRD report

Report on summer 2016 floods and fires highlights gaps in emergency response

When wildfires raged in the Peace Region earlier this summer, Emergency Info BC tweeted a link to information about evacuation alerts and orders in Fort St. John. 

Problem was, the evacuation alerts weren’t in Fort St. John. 

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Instead, only some rural residents to the north and west of town were in any immediate danger. But the post on Twitter didn’t make that distinction, it was picked up by some media organizations and with the destruction in Fort McMurray on everyone’s mind, the result was “panic.” 

“Banks closed, gas stations ran out of gas and people started to panic,” according to a new report from the Peace River Regional District on how to improve response to the fires and floods that shook the region this summer

The regional district report, included on the agenda at the board’s Sept. 8 meeting, is the first comprehensive look at how to better prepare for natural disasters in the wake of a summer marked by wildfires and floods.  

The report is one of several lobby items on the regional district’s agenda for the upcoming Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in Victoria. It contains dozens of recommendations aimed at mitigating the damage when the next natural disaster hits the region.  

“If something doesn’t change, it’s likely we’ll undergo the same result,” Chief Administrative Officer Chris Cvik said. “It’s just a matter of when, not if.” 

On April 18, 34 wildfires roared to life across Northeast B.C. in a span of six hours. Over the next five weeks, the number of fires grew to 70. A total of nine evacuation orders were issued, and 20 homes were destroyed. 

Just two months later, the region was hit with 40-130 mm over rainfall in a span of 24 hours— including a record-breaking 89.8 mm in the city of Dawson Creek. In the region’s rural areas, 418 properties were affected by flooding. More than 100 people in Hasler and Willow flats were stranded for nine days when Highway 97 through the Pine Pass was washed out in the rising waters. 

In addition to better Twitter coordination with the province, the PRRD is recommending emergency agencies adopt new evacuation training for RCMP and area First Nations, new protocols for closing highways and better communication with the Wildfire Management Branch. 

Floods in the region have followed a similar pattern, in part due to issues with provincial stream management, the report found. Infilling in creek channels from previous floods make each succeeding event worse. 

As well, culverts on both provincial highways and CN rail tracks are also “chronically undersized,” the report states, and should be replaced with bridges where practical. If a culvert is required, it should be to a once-in-200-year flood standard in the west Peace.  

“The concern from the board of the Peace River Regional District is that without the provincial government taking steps to address the issue, that history will unfortunately repeat (itself),” the report states. 

The UBCM meeting will be held later this month in Victoria. 


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