The Northern disaster-in-waiting

The Northern disaster-in-waiting

How do we stop the forces of nature when they amass, seemingly to conspire, against us?

When Mother Nature flaunts her powers, we are at her mercy. The snowstorm that inundated the northeast coast of North America last week laid yet another beating on those who suffered from Hurricane Sandy short months ago. The decade-long “Big Dry” in Australia was declared over, finally, in May 2012 when rains came. That optimism was quickly re-assessed when, all this winter, much of that country has baked in sweltering heat and dry conditions. More than extreme weather events, extreme patterns over the long term seem to be becoming the norm.

What we must do, in dealing with severe weather, is try to prepare for the worst.

The lessons of Kelowna, BC in 2009 and Slave Lake, Alberta in 2011 seem to be quickly forgotten. Yet the same could easily happen to any Northern community – in a normal, hot dry summer.

In such a situation of vulnerability, the only protection is to minimize the risk of fires starting and be as prepared as possible. That is not happening in the current circumstances. Now imagine what Northern communities would face if they, too, experienced a 10 year drought, with excessively hot weather. And lightning. And wind.

Much of Northern Canada is swathed in boreal forest. Conifers dominate and when dry spells intensify the already arid climate, the trees become tinder for wildfires, the Northern disaster-in-waiting. Tiny isolated communities dot the landscape, intruders in a sea of green. Nearly all communities systematically protect the forest fringe around them, and each are ringed by over-mature forest that according to natural cycles, desperately wants to burn.

Those communities are run by citizen councils, many of them lacking experience. Knowledge of what to do when a community is threatened by wildfire is typically non-existent. The fault cannot fall only to community leadership, however. Mayors and chiefs are often inexperienced, struggling with the demands of running a community. Senior administrators may excel at interpreting bylaws, but that does not mean they can provide the leadership needed in the face of a calamity. If there are leaders in a community with ability and knowledge in how to deal with a crises, it is likely an accident. No training exists, no carefully thought-out evacuation plans, no stock of waters or provisions for shelter and few, communities, if any, have well-run emergency measures organizations. On a very rare occasion, a mock disaster is held – at least that is something.

The knowledge, skills and, importantly, the leadership ability required to handle a major emergency requires ongoing training and practice. The responsibility for that falls to senior governments. Territorial and provincial administrations need to dedicate resources and work with communities to develop that expertise and foster preparedness. That is their job. Their failure to do this is an abdication of responsibility.

The typical approach to dealing with wildfire is reactive, rather than preventative. “Fire Smart” programs are touted, but too-busy communities pay only lip service to them. There is little support and training from senior governments to foster awareness among community councils. There should be programs, education and readily available expertise – refreshed with each election cycle that produces a new council. Senior governments should take the lead in showing how to evacuate a community, demonstrating safe options to choose from when things are dire, and how to access food water and shelter for all community residents for days at a time. This should be seen by all as an imperative, not an option with minimal priority.

We have one of the best firefighting forces in the world with tremendous resources, experienced ground crews and excellent command and control. But our communities are neglected when it comes to preparedness, especially for wildfire emergencies. Something has to be done about that. Summer is coming fast. Now is the time.

Northern Journal

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