On July 7, 2017 a lightning band passed over British Columbia, sparking 143 wildfires, the following day a State of Emergency was called, the first in BC since 2003. South Australia Country Fire Service’s (CFS) Media and Communications Officer Alison Martin was amongst the first of six Australian deployments to Canada in July involving 220 people, Australia’s largest ever commitment to Canada fires. The Information Officer talks about the differences between her role in Australia and British Columbia (BC).
by Alison Martin, with sketches by Rick McRae
Adelaide: At 0845 on Friday July 14 and the bushfire season is as far away as it can be. Within my small communications team at the CFS we vaguely hear corridor talk of a deployment to Canada. We joked about the absurdity of being part of such an exercise so far from home, but things quickly take a much more serious tone when the Chief Officer asks if I would be interested joining in an public information role.
Saying ‘yes’ was my default response, but what exactly had a gotten myself in for?
Chilliwack, British Columbia: I met my Incident Commander, Neil Brooksbank and the nine other Australian members of our team at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) training centre. A couple of days later were on our way to the Cariboo to manage 10 fires in the Quesnel Fire Zone – east of the Nazko River.
The drive north along Highway 97 was rather strange. We passed through several road blocks where residents had been evacuated, with burned edges along roads. Other than police and firefighters, there was no one to be seen. On arrival in Quesnel it was oddly comforting to see children having fun on the local playground.
We had a two-day handover with the BC team that was already in place. They’d set up a great network and processes to get the best information out to the public and in many cases engage with them one-on-one. I explained to a local journalist that there were some places in South Australia I’ve never heard of, so I’d treated Quesnel in a similar way – it wasn’t hard to settle in.
Of course there are many differences in process, but my key role was to get timely and accurate information to the public as frequently as possible. Fire naming conventions were a little tricky to pick up; our largest fire – fondly referred to as the Tautri fire (later the Plateau fire) due to its location – was actually fire C10784 (Cariboo, Quesnel Fire Zone (1) and the 784 fire start that year). For me it was a case of learning the number used within the ICT and then the name used in the community.
We had a daily newsletter, attended community meetings arranged by locals or the regional district, and the City of Quesnel had donated a shop front for our use, giving people in the area a place to drop in and speak to Information Officers about the latest developments. We took advantage of events, such as the Quesnel Farmers Market where the foot traffic offered us the chance to speak to more than 200 people in a morning. IC Brooksbank and I also attended several community meetings.
Working with First Nations Indian Bands was a new experience for me, in their culture and etiquette. For several their Indian Reserves had been closely impacted by the fire and that had dire flow on effects, beyond their immediate homes. Many rely on the flora and fauna in the effected areas to feed their families and generate income.
Receiving information back from the fire ground was difficult, with most updates provided in the nightly Operations meeting which explained progress of that days’ work and strategies to be put in place the following shift. This made it almost impossible to give the public updates more than once a day, but the detail in them really helped us explain the overall status.
Evacuation Orders added an extra layer of complexity to my role. In South Australia the fire service is the Control Agency for wildfire, generally we would not evacuate people, but if we did, we would be in charge of making that happen. In BC, the Wildfire Service only makes a recommendation to the Regional District (in this case Cariboo), which issues the Orders and Alerts. In some cases people were evacuated for more than 40 days and were considering protesting to have the order downgraded.
When it came to downgrading orders, not being the Control Agency did provide confusion. The Incident Commander’s role was simply to comment on the fire activity. So we did our due diligence researching the impacts in surrounding areas, should the fire reignite in some spots, and presented that to the Cariboo Regional District. The Regional District would then liaise with other parties to ensure powerlines had been replaced, highways were driveable and the police were able to help re-accommodate these areas. Really, the same boxes are checked, but it’s in someone else’s hands.
The Orders also affected ranchers in the area who were in the middle of their haying season and had stock to feed. In some instances they were in town when the order was placed and therefore could not return home. A permit system was thankfully set up to allow them to still gain an income this year and ensure their cattle, horses and other livestock were fed.
We liaised with Forestry stakeholders to go into the Order zone to transport cut logs out of the area and preserve what they could. In some cases we were able to work with them to remove these piles and keep the mills running, but sadly in others the loads cut logs were destroyed before they could get to them. Consequences of this devastation will no doubt be seen in these areas for many years to come.
It was not only the Evacuation Order areas having an effect on communities, but those in Alert areas or fires within 30 kilometres were unable to buy home insurance; the real estate market basically stopped. The hospital closed in Williams Lake and was then unable to operate at full capacity until the Alert was lifted. All this pressure was placed on BC Wildfire and the Cariboo Regional District to lift these.
This was an unprecedented fire season for BC. Resources were stretched to the absolute maximum and processes were tested at length. More than one million hectares have burnt, and the most impressive thing to come out of this is that no one has lost their life. There will be lasting impacts on the community for years; even decades to come, but to have everyone safe is the most important thing.
I have to thank SA Country Fire Service for this wonderful opportunity, and my team in BC – Australians and Canadians, they were all extremely dedicated and wonderful to work with. I certainly think some of my learnings in Canada will be implemented here as we deal with our own Fire Danger Season.
BIOs: Reflection by Alison Martin, Senior Media and Communications Officer, South Australian Country Fire Service. Sketches by Rick McRae, who is a Risk Analyst with Emergency Management, Risk and Spatial Services, ACT Emergency Services Agency, Australia. Both were among the cadre of 220 Australians who deployed to Canada to support the 2017 wildfire season.