SLRD responds to fire without emergency plan 

The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District was recently forced to respond to a forest fire in the heart of the district, without any kind of emergency plan in place.

For roughly one week, SLRD staff members, along with Board Chair Susan Gimse, were madly scrambling to protect residents of Seton Portage and Shalalth, including neighbouring First Nations communities, while firefighters battled the ever-threatening Whitecap Creek forest fire.

"It was a huge task and just a terrific responsibility (for staff)," said Gimse at Monday’s monthly board meeting.

"This emergency caught us a little off guard."

The Whitecap Creek fire blew up in a remote alpine area on Aug. 13.

Shortly after, SLRD Administrator Paul Edgington was asked by the province to rush to Lillooet and set up an Emergency Operations Centre despite the fact the SLRD does not yet have an emergency plan.

And so he packed a bag with not nearly enough clothes and left for Lillooet with prudent haste.

Earlier this year the province passed new legislation, which requires all regional districts to develop local emergency plans that apply to all its electoral areas.

The legislation says the plans are not required to be in place until 2006. Should an emergency occur in the interim however, the responsibility still lies with the regional district, as the SLRD learned with the Whitecap fire.

"We were caught in transition," said Gimse.

She said the SLRD assumed they couldn’t become the authority in an emergency without first going through all the steps, establishing bylaws and putting an emergency plan in place.

Though she said it was unfortunate that the situation occurred, the silver lining in the experience is that everyone learned something during the emergency.

At the height of the emergency the Whitecap Creek fire was burning only 4.5 kilometres away from the nearest residential community and under the right conditions could have been upon the community within five hours.

The threat to the communities was so severe that residents were given an evacuation alert, which bypassed the evacuation notice stage altogether.

The steep narrow valley slopes made it impossible for aerial tankers to manoeuvre safely into the area.

The Forest Service, however, did a burn off which removed the unburned fuel in front of the fire. And then they all played a "deadly waiting game" said Edgington, hoping Mother Nature would intervene on their behalf.

One of the first things that concerned Gimse when she arrived on the scene in Lillooet was the lack of Provincial Emergency Program personnel at the scene.

"I don’t think they fully understood that we didn’t have a plan in place," she said.

Meanwhile, the EOC kicked into high gear lead by Edgington as EOC Director. The EOC planned the evacuation routes, co-ordinated medical services, assessed damage and tracked expenses, among many other things.

The EOC had planned for a boat evacuation, as well as staging points for road and rail evacuation.

Fortunately the evacuation routes did not have to be used in the end as the fire burned up to the fireguard and held there.

With this experience under their belts, the SLRD is ready to move forward in developing an emergency plan.

Edgington said it’s key to develop a plan which explains everything in detail, allowing EOC staff to quickly brief people rather than relying on information stored in your head.

The plan must also identify all the key people that are needed and the detailed roles they must play in the event of an emergency.

He also said once the SLRD’s plan is developed, it’s crucial to do table top exercises and field exercises to prove out the plan, keeping it as up to date as possible.

Another key lesson learned at the Whitecap Creek fire is that while it’s essential to plan the response to the emergency itself, it’s also critical to plan the recovery.

"In responding you also have to plan to recover," said Edgington.

The Whitecap Creek fire comes on the heels of the forest fires in Lillooet which threatened that community earlier this summer.

The SLRD relied heavily on their experience to help them this month.

"If it wasn’t for the support and expertise of the people of Lillooet, we would have been lost," said Gimse.

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