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Regional districts want more disaster funding from Emergency Management B.C.

Premier John Horgan acknowledged the funding criticism during a news conference on Thursday
Thick smoke fills the air and nearly blocks out the sun as a property destroyed by the White Rock Lake wildfire is seen in Monte Lake, east of Kamloops, B.C., on Saturday, August 14, 2021. An alert system is being installed on a slope scorched by fire in British Columbia’s Interior, allowing for an early warning to the homes below if the deforested hillside gives way in heavy rain. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

An alert system is being installed on a slope scorched by fire in British Columbia’s Interior, allowing an early warning for the residents below if the deforested hillside gives way in heavy rain.

The $30,000 in funding from the province for the system in Sicamous, B.C., is an example that some provincial regional districts say is much better spent on prevention rather than spending millions in reaction to landslides, fires and floods.

The Columbia Shuswap Regional District is installing the alert system, and Derek Sutherland, the district’s team leader of protective services, said the cost of such projects can be prohibitive.

“They’re not inexpensive, but in the absence of any substantive mitigating work, they’re a must-have,” he said.

Sutherland said he’s heard from other districts that are interested in installing preventive or post-disaster systems, but the funding from Emergency Management B.C. isn’t available.

Emergency Management B.C. is part of the Public Safety Ministry and co-ordinates the response to disasters, including wildfires, flooding and landslides.

“EMBC is struggling with how it’s funding these early-warning systems,” Sutherland said.

The Fraser Valley Regional District passed a motion in February calling on the province and Emergency Management B.C. to raise the disaster financial assistance cap, which hasn’t changed in 26 years while property values have soared, to help affected property owners.

“While FVRD staff do not suggest that the Province should fully underwrite the risk for these kinds of events, $300,000 does not come close to meeting the needs of affected residents,” read the motion approved unanimously by the 22 members present at the meeting.

Regional districts are unique in Canada and were created in the mid-1960s to allow for greater co-operation between area cities or municipalities. They now oversee a variety of services from water supply to regional parks and their boards are generally made up of directors elected to local governments.

The complaints about funding come after wildfires raced through the province last summer, destroying numerous homes and much of the village of Lytton. Torrential rains then descended over southern B.C. in November pushing rivers past their breaking point, setting off landslides, washing away swaths of highways and flooding communities.

Kevin Skrepnek, director of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District’s emergency operations centre, said the province needs to provide better support before and after natural disasters.

“Broadly speaking, where we do run into frustrations … is the current emergency management legislation in the province is very response-focused,” he said in an interview. “If it’s not an imminent risk or imminent threat, that’s where it gets into the grey area.”

Skrepnek said regional districts face different challenges than cities or municipalities in getting funding for public-works projects.

“Our ability to spend funds on a discretionary basis is very limited.”

For example, Skrepnek said the province will supply sand for sandbags only when a disaster is declared, which can slow a regional district’s response to a natural disaster like flooding.

Premier John Horgan acknowledged the funding criticism during a news conference on Thursday, but said the province has a closer relationship with local governments when providing aid.

“I don’t want to disparage regional districts in my comment, but we have been working with municipal governments who have more capacity to manage these challenges,” he said.

“Emergency Management B.C. has infrastructure and capacity to help municipalities in these difficult times.”

Horgan agreed that emergency agencies and their resources have been stretched by last year’s disasters.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth is working to update the emergency management legislation and is aware of concerns, he added.

A statement from Emergency Management B.C. said it is ready to help affected districts.

“As we’ve seen with the last year’s heat dome, wildfires, flooding and mudslides, preparing for emergencies is critical. We have been increasing B.C.’s preparedness since forming government, precisely because of the warnings from experts on the impacts of climate change,” the statement said.

– Nick Wells, The Canadian Press