Emergency Response Capacity and Preparedness

Seeking refuge: The dispatcher spoke with an elderly couple as they called regarding the wildfire that was quickly approaching them. At this point, there was no way in or out to reach this distraught couple, and he kindly recommended that they move quickly to the closest body of water on their property; a small pond – where they should wait for help and for the fire to pass. The call then dropped.

Preparing for wildfire begins long before an evacuation notice goes in place and before one dials 9-1-1. Whose responsibility is it to be prepared for the changing of these landscapes and how does one learn what steps to take to be ready for evacuation?

To set the context, let us keep in mind the ways in which colonization has impacted cultural burning, the changing climate of our home, and where people are choosing to inhabit and build their homes. In the past 10-20 years, we have seen an influx among city dwellers switching their urban lifestyles for forest living, moving further into the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The US Forest Service defines the WUI “as a group of homes and other structures with basic infrastructure and service within or adjacent to deferral land that is an at-risk community.”[1] With these impacts in mind, there is an increased responsibility for inhabitants, stewards and community members to prepare for any wildfire event, regardless of whether the risk is minimal or not.

Currently, the responsibility to prepare for wildfire relies heavily on the individual to take action, a micro approach, to educate oneself and ultimately to make a decision in the face of an emergency event, either to stay put or to evacuate. With respect to building capacity and preparing individuals for wildfires, the Government of BC supports individuals by providing before, during and after wildfire resources. Let us take a closer look at the tool that is currently available to residents in BC.

Of the public safety and emergency services offered by the BC Government under emergency management, one of them is Public Preparedness and Recovery. Here resources cover hazards from earthquakes, avalanches, to floods and fire. When it comes to preparing for a wildfire, the public is encouraged to take additional precaution especially if they live in areas that are at a higher risk of a wildfire.[2]

This educational approach is broken into three categories: (1) Get Prepared, (2) Stay Safe, and (3) Recover. This information comes directly from the provincial emergency management department on public preparedness and recovery efforts.[3]


No. 01 — Get Prepared

If you’re in an area that is prone to wildfire, or you just want to be proactive, there are a number of activities you can complete to prevent or prepare for a wildfire.

No. 02 — Stay Safe

You can stay safe during a wildfire by knowing your trusted sources of information, understanding evacuation stages, and looking out for your health and safety.

No. 03 — Recover

Returning home after a wildfire can be overwhelming, but if you use caution and take things one-step at a time, it is possible to recover and return your home to normal.

Image from Canva under a Free Media License

More information available at: BC Public Safety and Emergency Services – Get Prepared for a Wildfire


In addition to the information offered by the Provincial Emergency Management Department, it is key to also highlight a program such as FireSmart Canada, which was initiated in 1990 by the Alberta Forest Service. This incredible service is meant to not only improve how stakeholders communicate during wildfire events but also to put programs in place that support homeowners, communities, and neighbourhoods in getting prepared for and managing during wildfire seasons.[4]

More efforts should be geared toward understanding these public awareness resources and learning how to apply them in communities in order to minimize the risk and dangers posed by wildfires.

This is supported by the work of Dodd et al. (2018) whereby there was agreement among all those interviewed that “comprehensive adaptation planning to mitigate the impact of future wildfire seasons” is imperative.[5](p334) Furthermore, “there is a need for community-based adaptation and education initiatives in this context to address the different stages of a prolonged wildfire and smoke event.”[6](p335)

Kettle River Recreation Area– (2018) by Andreas Rutkauskas, All Rights Reserved

The Meso: Municipal & Community Response to the Lytton Wildfire

In the case of the Lytton fire, residents were given only a minute’s notice to evacuate the village, offering them limited time to grab their belongings and leave town before the fire engulfed their homes. Community members departed in all directions, fleeing from their homes to seek shelter. Those heading north to the town of Kamloops experienced more than one evacuation, as Kamloops “was under threat of intense lightning storms, which would set the city on fire that same evening.”[7]

In some places, people were met with food, housing and spiritual healing by outside community members supporting the wildfire evacuees. Members of the Siska First Nation in Siska, located 10 kilometres south of the village of Lytton served as a place of welcome. Food, water and basic materials were dropped off for the firefighters.[8] One community member, Tyrell Kenworthy, highlightighted the importance of communication when it comes to responding to these wildfires for her community and province stating that “they need that Indigenous community drive work ethic that we have because we know so many people and we know how to communicate.”[9] Kenworthy who is an elected Councillor and emergency response manager for Shxwhá:y Village, shed light on how community must prioritize communication during emergencies: “as First Nations People, we know the importance of their wellbeing and with a lot of people being traumatized from having to leave their homes, we wanted to be here to support all of the families in any way that we can […]we want to take care of their spirit, take care of their wellbeing — try to heal them a little bit […] I know that it’s a long road to healing, but we’re here to uplift them in any way that we can” Kenworthy said.[10]

Keeping Communities Safe

As communities continue to expand in forested areas, it is vital to consider how wildland fire can impact individuals living in high risk areas, given the likelihood of damage to property and life. Therefore, evacuation plans need to be put in place by various municipalities and firefighting services must have adequate funding from the government to ensure a comprehensive response. Moreover, we are reminded that at the micro level homeowners have the responsibilities to come up with an emergency evacuation plan and to understand the potential danger they may face when living in forested areas. It is also critical to have individuals living in these areas know how to prevent the start and spread of fires, and generally what they can undertake to minimize the risk to their communities and personal properties.[11]


The Macro: Provincial Response to Wildfire Events

At the overarching policy and governmental level, how disastrous events such as wildfires are managed is critical as it can make a substantial difference in whether individuals have the opportunity to overcome the adversities that ensue. Intricate planning of costs and resources are both key aspects that should be accounted for when we consider the growing number of climate change-driven wildfires that we will see in the near future. To highlight this, looking at the recent wildfire season of 2021, we learn that the Government of BC’s budget costs for firefighting expenditures was raised to $881 million in September 2021 – this is after the initially allocated budget back in February 2021 of only $136 million. The additional costs that need to be allocated for rebuilding damaged infrastructure and supporting those who have lost homes is important to include, therefore a financial response that is adequately planned is one that ensures better chances of addressing the magnitude of increasing wildfires across the province.[12]

As an illustration, when we talk about costs we need to look no further than the Lytton wildfire of 2021. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) estimated the Lytton wildfire has led to $78 million in insured damages alone. The IBC underlined that “governments at all levels must do more to prioritize investments that build our resilience and better protect our families and communities.”[13] However, we must not forget there is no price one can place on lost life (human and wild) or the co-morbidities that may emerge in the aftermath. We are therefore urged to embrace an interdisciplinary collaborative approach across all agencies, communities and individuals in order to minimize the harms posed by wildfires.

An additionally important aspect that continues to surface in the wildfire literature and governmental responses is that of trust and communication.[14][15] For instance, the Natural Resources of Canada highlighted that “citizen trust in management agencies is a significant factor in gaining public support for management activities such as prescribed burning or thinning forest.”[16] Notably, when we consider the wildfire in Lytton that was presented earlier, the BC government was scrutinized for an inadequate response as a result of “gaps in protocols” as per the province’s public safety minister. According to First Nations leaders whose community was completely destroyed, the lack of communication with the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council and the Oregon Jack Creek Band lead to an insufficient evacuation response. It is observed in the media that Chief Matt Pasco, chair of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, mentioned how despite his request for assistance, the emergency authorities’ response was delayed, highlighting how “ it was left to those Indigenous communities to arrange everything themselves without any additional funding to save people, to give them anything they’re needing”. Chief Pasco further added, “This province does not recognize our governance systems, what we bring, and how we can protect our people.”[17] Hence, a key takeaway from the Lytton fire and others that have preceded it is that of the ethical and moral responsibility of governments to recognize Indigenous Peoples as stewards of these lands, in order to ensure better land management and hence more positive outcomes when faced with extreme weather events.

Looking ahead, the BC Government’s 2022 Budget may offer the promise and hope necessary to overcome some of the future climate change-fuelled events that will continue to impact the health and wellbeing of all British Columbians. Efforts will be geared toward (1) strengthening educational programs and partnerships; (2) enhancing community climate resilience; (3) working toward ensuring the protection of species and ecosystems while promoting their resilience; (4) and investing the necessary funds into building an economy and infrastructure which can withstand climate change events.[18]

Climate Preparedness and Adaption Strategy by Government of British Columbia, All Rights Reserved

  1. Ward, A. (Host). (2021, August 10). Fire Ecology (WILDFIRES) with Gavin Jones (No.213) [Audio podcast episode]. In Ologies with Alie Ward. Retrieved from: https://www.alieward.com/ologies/fireecology
  2. Government of British Columbia. (n.d.). Get prepared for a wildfire. Retrieved from: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/emergencymanagement/preparedbc/know-your-hazards/wildfires
  3. Ibid.
  4. FireSmart Canada. (2022). About FireSmart. Available at: https://firesmartcanada.ca/about-firesmart/?doing_wp_cron=1673027879.9937579631805419921875
  5. Dodd, W., Scott, P., Howard, C., Scott, C., Rose, C., Cunsolo, A., & Orbinski, J. (2018). Lived experience of a record wildfire season in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health 109, p.327-337. doi: https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-018-0070-5
  6. Ibid.
  7. Romer, A. (2021, July 8). On the ground with Lytton wildfire evacuees. https://thenarwhal.ca/lytton-bc-wildfire-evacuees/
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Natural Resources Canada. (2020). Protecting communities. Retrieved from: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/wildland-fires-insectsdisturban/ forest-fires/protecting-communities/13153
  12. Lee, M. (2021). Five lessons from BC’s horrific wildfire season. Available at: https://www.policynote.ca/horrific-wildfires/
  13. Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). (2021). Lytton wildfire causes $78 million in insured damage. Available at: http://www.ibc.ca/bc/resources/media-centre/mediareleases/lytton-wildfire-causes-78-million-in-insured-damage
  14. Howard, C., Rose C., Dodd, W., Kohle, K., Scott, C., Scott, P., Cunsolo, A., & Orbinski, J. (2020). SOS! Summer of Smoke: A retrospective cohort study examining the cardiorespiratory impacts of a severe and prolonged wildfire season in Canada’s high subarctic. BMJ Open 11: e037029. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-037029
  15. Dodd, W., Scott, P., Howard, C., Scott, C., Rose, C., Cunsolo, A., & Orbinski, J. (2018). Lived experience of a record wildfire season in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health 109, p.327-337. doi: https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-018-0070-5
  16. Natural Resources of Canada. (2020). Social aspects of wildfire management. Available at: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/wildland-fires-insectsdisturban/ forest-fires/protecting-communities/social-aspects-wildfire-management/14444
  17. Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). (2021). BC admits communications with First Nations during Lytton fire ‘didn’t live up to expectations.’ Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-first-nations-communicationsgaps- 1.6089869
  18. Government of British Columbia. (2022). Climate preparedness and adaptation strategy. Available at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/climatechange/ adaptation/cpas


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Understanding Wildfires Copyright © 2023 by Raluca Radu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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