Not long after arriving to start a new job in Kamloops (Tk’emlúps), the city’s emergency preparedness manager faced his first test.
With rivers flowing unseasonably high during the delayed spring freshet in late June 2022, the city was on high alert. An Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated and Will Beatty adopted another new title: EOC director.
Meanwhile, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD), was also dealing with flooding.
As a precaution, the regional government set up its own EOC. Kevin Skrepnek, the TNRD’s manager of community and emergency services, who had cut his teeth for nearly a decade as an information officer with the BC Wildfire Service, was concerned there might be overlap with the wildfire season. He was right. A few weeks later, TNRD’s EOC was managing duelling elemental emergencies: water and fire.
The latest event, prompting the activation of EOCs in the Kamloops area, is the Ross Moore Lake wildfire about 10 kilometres south of town. At last update, the wildfire covers an area of about 62 square kilometres and is thought to be caused by lightning.
“It’s one thing after another,” says Beatty, “and it’s becoming overwhelming.”
In the past, those living in B.C.’s Interior could, for the most part, count on natural disasters sticking to a calendar: freshet flooding in the spring and wildfires in the summer.
Today emergency managers are seeing more of what Skrepnek calls “cascading emergencies.” Areas affected by the “very busy” 2021 wildfire season, for example, were pummelled by floods months later, Skrepnek explains, having been stripped of protective vegetation.
“A lot of those areas were impacted by the atmospheric river and because of the fires, they were more vulnerable. And then in the wake of that, we saw a lot of landslides and debris movement issues after flooding. They’re all connected.”
In the Kamloops region, this range of interconnected risks has emergency planners on high alert.
“As far as natural disasters go, wildfire is number one,” says Shane Wardrobe, emergency planning coordinator for Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc. “Flooding is number two.”
The other main concern is hazardous materials spills on any of the transportation corridors — railroads or highways — that intersect in the city.
With human-caused climate change fuelling the frequency and ferocity of environmental disasters, there’s a heightened sense of awareness around preparing for the worst-case scenario.
“We’ve had our three worst fire seasons in the last five years,” says Skrepnek. “We’re there. We’re through the looking glass. This isn’t academic anymore.”
But there are a handful of locals who focus on making sure the entire region is as prepared as possible for when the next crisis happens.
How do Emergency Operations Centres work?
An EOC is a system for coordinating an emergency response. Staff use shared terminology and organizational structures to respond quickly and effectively. In other words, they support what’s happening on the ground, but are away from the action.
In the case of wildfires, EOCs use information provided by BC Wildfire to inform evacuation alerts and order zones. “But it’s actually our responsibility and our decision, whether we do it or not,” says Skrepnek, “or whether we change the boundaries that we’re getting from them.”
The first priority is to ensure first responders are safe, then it’s about saving lives, which could be done through a combination of door-knocking and sending out alerts to cell phones, emails or landlines. They may also work to protect public health, infrastructure and the environment.
Jurisdictions like the TNRD — which covers an area larger than Switzerland — the city and Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc have unique EOCs; they come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a handful of people to more than two dozen depending on the size and complexity of the issue at hand.
This is communicated in tiers with Level 1 being the smallest activation and Level 3 the largest. The City of Kamloops’ EOC is currently operating at Level 1, which means it’s managing a small situation at a single site, with more than two agencies involved, as well as the potential threat from flooding, a severe storm, or interface fire.
In B.C., all emergency preparedness decisions are firmly rooted in legislation. An EOC can exist without the government declaring a local state of emergency, but there can’t be a local state of emergency without an EOC. This is to protect the public, since a state of emergency gives a jurisdiction extraordinary powers, like the ability to access and control private property to evacuate people and animals or build sandbag berms.
EOCs are run by city, regional district or First Nation staff whose normal roles may be in unrelated areas.
Among the first on-site during an EOC activation will be the EOC director, people like Beatty, Skrepnek and Wardrobe. They’ll be followed by GIS specialists for immediate mapping needs as well as planning section heads, as there could be a requirement to send out evacuation orders quickly.
Capacity can be a limiting factor here, especially for the regional district, Skrepnek explains. “We kind of feel hamstrung sometimes just because we do have so few staff,” he says.
When they have to expand an EOC out to 40 staff members, plenty of those people have day jobs in other areas of the regional district, often completely unrelated to responding to an emergency. So the tasks from their normal jobs will pile up while they’re away.
“Some are stressed out, working their butts off, and they go back to their regular job in the library or in planning or whatever it might be, and they’ve got three months of work to do,” says Skrepnek.
Those not working in the EOC, have to “keep the wheels on the bus and keep [the] government operating,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think the reality is, with climate change and the trajectory we’re on, that’s not gonna get any better.”
Materially, an EOC can range from a a purpose-built room, in the case of the City of Kamloops, to a kit, in the case of Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, which has a mobile EOC stored in waterproof cases in Wardrobe’s office.
The TNRD is in the process of opening its own purpose-built EOC in the regional government building downtown. It’s a suggestion that came out of the 2021 fire season, according to Skrepnek. At that time, he and others were using whatever free room they could find: sometimes a meeting room, other times the boardroom normally reserved for local government meetings.
Since preparedness plays an important role in emergency management, a dedicated space makes activating an EOC easier. Stations with computers can be left set up, while area maps remain on the wall for the next emergent need.
Getting the message out
Communicating with residents becomes especially important when evacuations could be needed. Kamloops, the TNRD and Tk’emlups te Secwepemc all use VoyentAlert!, a non-broadcast-intrusive system that sends regional messages to people who have signed up. The system is different from the province’s emergency alert system, which sends messages to cell phones whether people have signed up to receive messages, or not.
In Kamloops, less than 20 per cent of the population has signed up for VoyentAlert!, though the TNRD has more subscribers than residents — likely due to people signing up to keep track of secondary residences or family members. Rates remain low within Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Wardrobe anticipates better subscription with advertising).
One challenge with regional EOCs is that if an emergency requiring evacuations like a wildfire overlaps jurisdictions, there’s no single official place to look for information about the region as a whole. This was evident when Knutsford, which straddles both the City of Kamloops and the TNRD, was affected by the Ross Moore Lake wildfire.
BC Wildfire posts specific information about the status of wildfires and aggregates evacuation notices. TNRD posts evacuation notices on its website, while the City of Kamloops posts on its own.
Some groups like Facebook’s Kamloops Area Fire Watch aim to share posts from the various official sources with its more than 18,000 members.
It’s a valuable resource for residents stymied by borders, but there is always the risk that volunteer-delivered information could be out-of-date, or just plain wrong.
While he wasn’t aware of the group before The Wren asked, Skrepnek believes it’s “probably a positive example of using social media to aggregate good info into one spot.”
It’s better to give residents a bit of notice — if possible — to evacuate. That would come via an evacuation alert, which may turn into an order, or not.
“It’s always based on the modelling that’s presented in front of us and the experts will recommend certain things,” says Beatty, referring to government agencies like BC Wildfire. “If it’s a high-risk situation, it’s easier to put somebody on notice than it is to instantly tell them to leave their house.”
On July 19, the TNRD used the province’s broadcast-intrusive alert system — the same used for amber alerts — to notify those in the Lac le Jeune area of an evacuation order. As far as Skrepnek knows, it’s the first time the program has been used in a wildfire-related situation in southern B.C.
He says they opted to use the system, as well as VoyentAlert! and door-to-door notification, because of the number of recreation users and tourists in the area who might have been hard to reach otherwise.
Volunteers help evacuees navigate supports
When people are evacuated, they need somewhere to go. For communities in the Interior, that will usually mean Kamloops. The confluence has often hosted evacuees and knows it’ll be called upon again.
The department that helps evacuees is called Emergency Support Services (ESS) and follows the province’s rulebook while applying it locally. More than 100 volunteers are trained to work at the ESS reception centre, which is set up at McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre on the North Shore.
Volunteers will interview evacuees — on order, not alert — to determine their eligibility for provincial support and help set them up with a place to stay and food to eat.
But ESS is only designed to help for the immediate 72 hours after a crisis. Aid can be extended, but only at the discretion of the province.
What’s offered will change from person to person, says Natasha Hartson, community and emergency supports supervisor for the City of Kamloops.
“Unfortunately, that can sometimes be a bit of a misconception amongst evacuees, when they talk to their friend and their friend got this and then they got something different,” she says. “Every person’s circumstances are different, which is why there are differences in what they receive.”
In Kamloops, a newly-minted Social Task Force spearheaded by Kristi Rintoul, community impact manager with United Way BC, is set up to help connect evacuees with services in the community’s social sector. That can be anything from providing babysitting services to culturally appropriate food. As with the other areas of emergency management, preparation is key.
“Organizing those things ahead of time is so important,” she says. “We know we’re going to be called upon. This is not a one-off; it’s going to happen again.”
While there are preparations in place, things don’t always go to plan: a wind shifts; communication falls flat; rains don’t fall — or do. When the dust settles, there’s a review. What could we have done better?
For the TNRD, it has been the creation of a dedicated EOC space; for Wardrobe, it’s establishing the processes at Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, making them seamless.
Beatty points to lessons the city learned after the 2021 Juniper Ridge fire: namely, more than one access road to the neighbourhood was needed to transform what some fire departments call suicide subdivisions.
Coordination is key
The provincial government continues to throw money at emergency preparedness, investing $369 million in the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund since 2017, which funds projects like EOC equipment and training, flood risk assessment and evacuation route planning.
There are also legislative changes coming to how emergency preparedness is managed in B.C., with a focus on local governments having more agency in decisions, but that’s still in the works.
As policy-level decisions are made, Beatty, Skrepnek and Wardrobe encourage residents to be personally prepared. They all reference Prepared BC’s materials when it comes to creating a plan.
Read more: Wildfire evacuations: are you prepared?
There are guides for businesses, agricultural properties, apartment dwellers and homeowners. While the standard for a grab-and-go kit is to be prepared for 72 hours, local emergency planning leaders say that should likely be longer. In response to an investigation by The Tyee which found that British Columbians are being evacuated for longer than three weeks on average, B.C.’s Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness said the province is working to adapt these services to the climate crisis.
Collectively, emergency officials at Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, the TNRD and the City of Kamloops are pushing for greater collaboration.
They already meet bi-weekly to share information, understanding that floods, fires and landslides don’t just stop at an arbitrary border, and would like to have a mutual aid agreement. This would be a formal way to share resources, like people, between jurisdictions in the area. Recently, countries like Mexico, South Africa and the U.S. have sent firefighters to help across Canada, another example of mutual aid.
With Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc being so close to the city and the regional district, coordination between the three governments is especially strong, explains Skrepnek. They started meeting during the 2021 wildfire season, and have continued meeting bi-weekly in the off-season, with now daily contact. It’s mostly informal, he says, but they aim to keep each other apprised of situations — big and small.
“Anything in this vicinity, we try to keep ourselves in the loop, even if it’s not really something,” says Skrepnek. “It’s really just an apparatus for us to be sharing information and communicating.”
Skrepnek says due to the nature of the region, if something is affecting one of them, it’s affecting all of them.
With changes coming to the provincial legislation, he’s hopeful that improved regional coordination will come sooner, rather than later.
“The province is trying to put more mechanisms in place to kind of build a structure like what we’ve done with the city and Tk’emlúps,” he says, encouraging more regional coordination and supporting governments in being more proactive rather than reactive. “It’s been really rewarding.”
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