Premier David Eby used his second visit this summer to wildfire-stricken areas in the southern Interior on Monday (Sept. 11) to announce an expert task force on climate-related emergencies.
While the current focus remains on fighting existing wildfires as well as helping communities deal with drought conditions, government must also enhance its responses to the “near-constant series of emergencies” caused by climate change, Eby said, pointing to the possibility of landslides and severe flooding later in the fall.
Eby said the task force will look at how government can simultaneously support front line crews and apply lessons from their experiences in preparing for future emergencies.
“We don’t have the luxury of time between emergencies right now in British Columbia,” he said at a news conference in Kamloops.
Eby is also planning to visit Salmon Arm on Monday afternoon to meet with people affected by wildfires, local leaders, volunteers and BC Wildfire Service personnel.
The task force announcement comes amidst calls for a third-party review of the 2023 wildfire season and before promised updates to provincial emergency legislation.
Eby acknowledged that British Columbians have seen multiple reviews and studies of emergency related issues in trying to draw a distinction with those previous reports.
“(The) goal here with the task force is to avoid the fate of many of those reviews, to make sure that as we are learning what we can do better, we are deploying it right away.”
The task force will integrate what Eby called “independent voices” from outside of government into the public service, wildfire service and the emergency response team, so that “we can put those recommendations, those findings to work right away.”
The task force will also stand apart from the overhaul of emergency legislation. The emergency legislation creates the larger framework while the task force will not deal with questions of law, but with allocating resources, Eby said when asked about pending and what he called long over-due changes to the Emergency Program Act.
The task force will consider, among other issues, increased recruitment of local volunteers, provincial collaboration with local municipalities and First Nations, the incorporation of municipal firefighting and other emergency forces with provincial resources and the use of enhanced technology, such as artificial intelligence. The task force will also look at ways to make support services more accessible for evacuees with a focus on short-term financial help and accommodation.
It is not clear yet who and how many people will sit on the task force among other details.
But comments from Eby suggest that the task force will include a broad range of voices with a rolling mandate.
“My goal is to make sure that the people on the task force include those who can actually implement on the ground any changes that need to be made and ensure that the resources are delivered according to what is found by task force as it’s going on,” he said.
That would require people from inside government, he said. “But it’s also critically important to have independent voices as well, voices from municipal firefighting for example…a voice from the BC Wildfire Service that is not from the management level could be a welcome voice about that frontline experience, it could be an expert in technology.”
Eby also pointed to Australia as place of study for lessons, where authorities have been incorporating experienced volunteers into frontline firefighting efforts.
The Premier’s Office said more specific details about the task force such as terms of reference and budget will be forthcoming later. Additional legislation to help reduce provincial greenhouse emissions is also in the works.
BC United House Leader Todd Stone, MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson, criticized the announcement as a distraction.
“There is nothing new to be learnt,” he said. “When it comes to mitigation (of climate-related disasters), there are range of recommendations that have been on table for years.” Equally long is the list of recommendations when it comes to responding to emergencies, he added. “This has all been talked about ad nausam for years,” Stone said.
“So it just mind-boggeling that the Premier would make a big deal about wanting to go back to the drawing board with an expert panel of people to try to come up with recommendations,” Stone said. “Get on with it.”
Stone also rejected arguments that the proposed task force — which aims to apply lessons learnt from one disaster almost immediately to another — is fundamentally different and that the multiplicity of overlapping crises requires a different real-time learning response.
“This more kicking the ball down the field,” he said. “What is required is for the government to get off its butts and actually take action on all of these fronts.”
BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau welcomed aspects of Eby’s announcement but criticized others. She said the appropriate response to emergencies is not a “group of experts behind closed doors,” but bringing communities together to take collective decisions and actions.
“While we are glad to see some action being taken to address the catastrophic losses this summer, the province’s focus should shift from a task force towards establishing regional tables that include First Nations, experts, local government, and the MLAs from that region,” she said.