‘Doesn’t work great’: Bridging the emergency management gap for First Nations

Brenden Mercer has been fighting fires since 2009. He’s seen the wildfire landscape change in B.C. and how communities are left to deal with emergency management, firefighting and evacuations at an increasing rate.

“When I first started, you’d have big fire blowups occasionally, but over the years it seemed like these events were happening more frequently,” said Mercer.

“I think it was 2012 or 2013 and one fire near Cheslatta in the Binta Lake region ran about 15 kilometres overnight and at the time it was like, ‘Oh this is completely unheard of, this is unprecedented,’ but we’re seeing those types of events all the time.”

Now the decision support manager with the First Nations’ Emergency Support Services (FNESS), Mercer is helping bridge the jurisdictional gaps First Nations face during wildfire season.

While First Nations communities fall under federal jurisdiction, emergency management, forest management and fire management are all provincial. So when evacuation orders and alerts occur, so does added confusion.

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First Nations’ emergencies boot camp becomes two-way learning experience

FNESS delivers essential emergency management, fire training, education and prevention, help with emergency planning, response and recovery and source avenues for funding to First Nations communities across B.C.

While the province is currently experiencing its worst wildfire season for area burned, FNESS is working towards boosting prevention and mitigation across communities.

“The current strategy of response, in my opinion, doesn’t really work that great,” said Mercer. “Of course, you have to save people’s lives and save homes and properties but I’ve been on some of these wildfires where they’ll have water planes and retardant planes drop retardant all day and it’s basically dropping millions of dollars on the fire when there are other ways.”

FNESS’s focus is on rapid wildfire risk assessment. They have fire mitigation trailers and protection trailers and are trying to keep the communities they work with informed.

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“We’re collecting information on what sort of mitigations need to be done to actually protect homes and with that we’re able to hire band members in the community before a wildfire,” he said. “This FireSmart mitigation includes cleaning up the yard, right around the house, and setting up sprinklers.”

Mitigation can also help curb frustrations from homeowners who feel they’re left hanging with no help.

Click to play video: 'Evacuation orders remain in hard hit areas of McDougall Creek wildfire'

Evacuation orders remain in hard hit areas of McDougall Creek wildfire

Recently, FNESS began building a wildfire overview map so communities are able to see risks and wildfires immediately.

“What we deal with all the time is First Nations not having good alert systems,” said Mercer. “So (pulling) all this data together in real time helps effective decision making happen.”

Their map includes layers like fire locations, hot spots, whether there’s cell service, evacuation routes, historical fire perimeters and others. First Nations communities have access to a detailed, routinely-updated map, but there’s also a publicly-available one.

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“There’s so much out there, so we just pull it together and make it super, super easy to access and make it functional for supporting communities that don’t have capacity,” said Mercer.

“We make sure that anything we collect is always going to be available to the nation so when our teams are out there putting sprinklers on roofs, doing these rapid risk assessments, they’re collecting all this information.

“As they hit save and they’re in cellphone service, somebody in the band office can see exactly what they did, And that’s just to really increase accountability through emergency management.”

And while there’s more work to be done to help bridge jurisdictional gaps, there are things community members can do.

“Check your roof gutters, make sure your home doesn’t have any combustible materials on or adjacent to it,” said Mercer.

“With these emergency fire scenarios blowing up like they have never done previously, the best thing that communities can do is be prepared.”

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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