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Don’t Be Alone When Disaster Strikes

by | Sep 25, 2023 | Community Development

When an out-of-control wildfire charged towards the rural community of Fox Creek in northwest Alberta last May, government officials ordered everyone to leave. The town was about to be consumed. However, local volunteer firefighters who had already worked “past the point of exhaustion” to save their homes refused to go.

“With all the resources we had here, with all the experience, we felt the town was defendable, we felt we had a good plan in place,” one of the volunteers, Wade Martineau, told reporters afterwards.

The fire – one of hundreds that engulfed huge areas of Canada in early summer – came dangerously close but never entered Fox Creek. Thanks to the heroic efforts of its volunteers the town escaped the flames but the wildfire still left its mark. As the Guardian newspaper reported, “the success came at a steep cost: the volunteers were shattered physically and emotionally.”

It is a story that resonates not just across Canada and North America but around the world as communities deal with the reality of human-made climate change – particularly in rural areas. When dealing with disasters like wildfires and floods rural communities are often left to their own devices.

Help might eventually come from higher levels of government but the initial response is in the hands of residents. Not only do they know the area best, they are the first responders. To be clear, I am not suggesting people ignore evacuation orders or that every resident become a volunteer firefighter. I am, though, suggesting rural communities need not fight the battle alone.

In 2020, the Colorado-based Natural Hazards Centre issued a report entitled, Rural resilience: disaster preparedness for communities off the beaten path. Here is its opening paragraph: “Depictions of rural life tend to romanticize certain qualities – the remoteness, the rustic charm, the freedom from the bustle and crowds of cities. These qualities might be appealing, but they are also what make rural communities especially vulnerable to the impacts of hazards and disasters. Because they lack the financial and material resources that are available in urban areas, rural areas must think ahead and work collaboratively to build their disaster resilience.”

There is that magic word: collaboration.

I have long been a fierce advocate of collaboration among communities. In the context of economic development, inter-municipal cooperation brings economies-of-scale that help communities and regions grow.

In the context of disaster, regional teamwork can help communities and regions not only survive but bounce back quicker. It’s called resilience.

The Natural Hazards Centre report pointed out building resilience is more difficult for rural areas than urban because “(s)maller tax bases can cause financial constraints, limited population can affect the way state and local mitigation and recovery funds are distributed, and training opportunities and equipment for disaster response might also be lacking. Reduced access to technology can prevent communication before, during, and after disasters.”

This is not news to anyone familiar with the challenges facing rural residents. One solution, say the report’s authors, is for rural communities that are situated near urban areas to enter into formal agreements with the larger centres to “gain advantages through regional partnerships and to access resources for emergency management.”

This is not just a matter of working together during and after a disaster but to work together to help mitigate, or even avoid, an emergency. And we needn’t limit partnerships to communities near urban centres. Neighbouring small communities can band together, too.

One strength that smaller centres bring to any partnership is a strong sense of community.

People in small towns simply call it helping their neighbours. The report calls it “strong social capital” as in “Communities we examined either exhibited strong social capital and shared resources informally or they developed local mutual assistance arrangements to share resources. Taking the initiative to draft memorandum of understandings and mutual assistance compacts can help in building local capacities.”

It’s a fancy way of saying communities that plan together, survive together.

The same goes for the people in our communities. We must make sure residents are working together to build resilience inside our towns when making disaster-response plans. A 2018 New York Times article with the no-messing-around-headline, How to Prepare Your Community for a Disaster, said communities should piggyback emergency-response plans on existing institutions.

“Disaster research shows that tight-knit communities with strong, locally driven organizations respond better in disaster situations,” said disaster-response expert Mitch Stripling. “That means that any work you do to build community, from strengthening a P.T.A. to starting a local business that serves as a community hub, will naturally help your neighborhood be better prepared. “That’s a key point to focus on. These civic institutions or schools or churches not only enrich our lives day to day, they help to save our lives when disaster strikes. And many of them are not as strong as they used to be.”

This blog post is not a primer on how to build an emergency-response plan or how your community should build a regional plan. Every community is different. But we all have the same enemy as climate change drives more wild weather events. As the British Columbia government’s web page on wildfires points out bluntly: “Climate change is causing wildfires to get bigger, hotter, and more frequent.”

Even if your community has an emergency plan, you cannot get complacent. I know this lesson well.

In May 14-16, 2011, a disastrous wildfire ripped through Slave Lake in Northern Alberta destroying one-third of the town of 7,000 people. Nobody died in the fire which was a miracle in itself. Later that year I was named Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and tasked with overseeing a report into the fire that was released in 2013. It was sober reading, a tale of chaos and confusion.

According to the report, “the emergency operations centre did not have adequate food, water or supplies to support emergency management resources, nor did it have enough phone and Internet communications capability to connect effectively with different components of such a large emergency response.” And that was before the emergency operations centre itself burned down.

As the fire engulfed the town, some people were told to evacuate, others to stay home. 

Ultimately, it was the townspeople, with the aid of police and firefighters, who saved themselves: “Without training specific to this kind of evacuation, considerable adaptability and creativity was required of first responders, municipal resources, external partners and residents themselves during the evacuation. The successful evacuation of the town without fatalities is widely attributed to both good collaboration and good fortune.”

There is that all important word, collaboration, again. 

As minister, I accepted all of the report’s 19 recommendations including implementing an “incident command system so that emergency response roles and mandates are firmly established within a single, clear chain of command.”

Alberta has since suffered even more catastrophic fires including the “beast” that savaged Fort McMurray in 2016, forcing 88,000 people to flee their homes. In April of 2020, Fort McMurray was hit with another disaster when a flood caused more than $500-million in damages.

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, whether it be fire, flood, drought, or hailstorm, to name a few. Then we have disasters created by disease – as COVID-19 reminded us.

As minister in 2013, I took steps to improve how Alberta responds to disasters but it has become something of a race against time as the effects of climate change exacerbate problems.

But it is not simply climate change. It is how and where we build our communities. It is how we deal with the environment around us. It is how we perceive the hazard and we organize ourselves against it. It is how we work together and share knowledge and resources, so we can be resilient, and responsive before, during and after a crisis.

As a cabinet minister 10 years ago, I ruffled some feathers by suggesting we need to look at all the factors. Here’s what I told the Edmonton Journal at the time: “These one-in-a-100-year floods seem to be happening every 10 years. Is that because with the increase in the population, we’re building more houses on flood plains? Is that just because of climate change, or is it because of our impact and effect on the environment and the way we divert rivers? There are so many factors, but there’s no doubt these are becoming more consequential every year.”

I ruffled feathers then and I guess I’m doing it again.

People like to build homes on scenic flood plains or tucked away in forested neighborhoods. Those housing schemes are wonderful at attracting people to rural communities. And I realize there is a political and economic price to pay if we stop developers from building on flood plains and we enact strict building codes to make homes more fire resistant.

But we have to re-examine how and where we build. There is a price to pay when the river overflows its banks or the embers start flying.

We can press governments at the federal and state/provincial level in North America to deal with issues such as clearing years of deadwood from the forest floor to help prevent forests turning into tinderboxes.

Ultimately, though, we must prepare ourselves and our communities. But we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, the best way to address it is to work together.