The likelihood of an evacuation of part or all of Nelson is very low, says Nelson’s emergency management director Len MacCharles, but it could happen. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

The likelihood of an evacuation of part or all of Nelson is very low, says Nelson’s emergency management director Len MacCharles, but it could happen. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

How to evacuate Nelson in a wildfire

Head of emergency services stresses self-reliance

“It depends.”

That phrase comes up again and again in a discussion with the head of Nelson’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) about what a wildfire evacuation of Nelson might look like.

It depends on many things including the location and severity of the fire, which of the three exit highways are open, and which parts of the city need evacuating, says Len MacCharles, who is also the city’s fire chief.

He says the need for an evacuation of all or part of Nelson because of a wildfire is “unlikely but plausible.”

Everyone should have a evacuation plan before an evacuation alert is issued, rather than relying on emergency services, he says. It’s all about being as self-sufficient as possible.

Ideally, most Nelson residents already have a plan. They are signed up for emergency notifications, they have created a grab-and-go bag, their gas tank is full, and they have decided where outside of Nelson they will go if they have to evacuate.

“If they have done all these things,” MacCharles says, “they have helped immensely and they will be able to safely move out of harm’s way.”

Hospital and seniors’ homes

MacCharles says it is the responsibility of institutions such as Kootenay Lake Hospital and Mountain Lake Seniors Community to create and carry out an evacuation plan for their residents.

MacCharles says his office will work with those facilities but his resources will be stretched and he relies on them to have their own plans and resources in place.

Nelson’s EOC, set up in the fall of 2019, has only two employees, MacCharles and emergency management co-ordinator Lindsay Eastwood. In an evacuation they will rely on and co-ordinate Nelson’s regular fire, police, and ambulance personnel as well as re-assigned city staff and Nelson Search and Rescue.

Those services will be very busy during a wildfire evacuation with many people leaving town at once, MacCharles says.

But his services would still be on the lookout for vulnerable people who need assistance and would co-ordinate help for them.

“If there are people with no alternative, we will be there. We won’t leave anybody behind. But to do that effectively we need the people who can take care of themselves to take care of themselves,” he says.

Interior Health has not replied to the Nelson Star’s requests for information on how it would evacuate the hospital or any other institutions it is associated with in Nelson. Park Place Seniors Living, the operator of Mountain Lakes Seniors Community, has not returned our calls.

People with no car

Everybody has neighbours and perhaps they have friends or family in the area, and they should reach out to them in advance and make a plan if they have no car, says Eastwood.

And everyone else should watch out for those people.

“If you know of someone that lives near you, maybe a senior that doesn’t drive, or someone that just doesn’t have a vehicle for whatever reason, reach out to them now,” she says. “Think about your broader community and check in on those people, see if they have a plan, and start to strategize.”

Director Len MacCharles and coordinator Lindsay Eastwood in the Emergency Operations Centre in Nelson. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Director Len MacCharles and coordinator Lindsay Eastwood in the Emergency Operations Centre in Nelson. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Vulnerable populations

MacCharles says the social service organizations who support people with no homes and other vulnerable people should make an evacuation plan for any of their clients who don’t have family locally.

“We ask that social service organizations work with their clients to develop plans and assist the groups they support year-round during disasters, including evacuations, so that they are not solely reliant on emergency services,” he says.

“There will be a lot of demands on emergency and city services during a disaster and I would love to say we will be able to meet all needs, but expecting a nice organized pick-up by emergency services is not realistic.”

Ankors, Nelson CARES and the Nelson Community Services Society sent the Nelson Star a joint response to those statements by email.

The email states that it is critical for the city and the RDCK to reach out to non-profit social service organizations and understand their limited budgets and restricted capacity to respond to a disaster.

“Specifically, people living without homes in our community, including those at the two shelters and the current temporary hotel site, are independent adults. The social serving sector provides a range of services to individuals who are at risk and without homes; however they are not the sole responsibility of the social serving sector.

“There is no social serving agency in the province that is resourced to evacuate independent adults from a natural disaster. We are partners in preparing for a community response. We are not, and never can be, the sole provider.”

The email goes on to say that the city and the RDCK should designate muster areas and provide city buses in collaboration with School District 8 buses.

“The social sector in Nelson does not have access to transit vehicles and trained drivers.”

The email states that a few agencies operate community living services where they are legally responsible for care and custody of people who cannot live independently, and in those cases their organizations will take responsibility.

Weighing the risk

The City of Nelson hired MacCharles as fire chief following his experience as head of emergency management in Calgary during the 2013 floods and as incident commander during the destructive wildfire in Slave Lake, Alta., in 2011.

MacCharles emphasizes that usually it is specific parts of a city that are evacuated, not the whole city. And as much as Nelson is at risk of wildfire there are a number of factors in the city’s favour.

We live beside a lake in a valley bottom. Fires tend to travel uphill. Lightning usually strikes at the top of mountains.

“That’s not to say the perfect storm couldn’t occur,” he says, “but it would take a number of factors to really threaten Nelson as an entire community.”

Evacuation alerts

If any of the highways leading out of Nelson were closed because of the fire, residents under an evacuation order would know this because the EOC would publicize it on its emergency notification alert system. Residents can sign up to receive alerts on their cell phone, or on their land line or email, by clicking the emergency alerts icon on the home page at www.nelson.ca.

To receive evacuation alerts on your phone or your email, go to www.nelson.ca and sign up at the link on the home page. Screenshot: nelson.ca.

To receive evacuation alerts on your phone or your email, go to www.nelson.ca and sign up at the link on the home page. Screenshot: nelson.ca.

Information such as highway closures sent out on the emergency alert system will also be communicated on all other available public media. This would be especially necessary if a fire disables cell service.

The EOC has the city divided into divisions: Fairview, Uphill, Gyro, Downtown, Rosemont, and North Shore, each of which is divided into several zones. Emergency alert notifications and information can be targeted and sent only to people in evacuation zones, not to the whole city.

“When we send out the notification,” Eastwood says, “we can include a map in that notification so people can see exactly where the evacuation area is and where it isn’t. And we can also include things like roads closed. So when people get their notification, we can put whatever text we want in that notification, that is either text or voice if somebody is getting it on their landline or an email.”

The alerts may also contain information on evacuation reception centres in other towns. That information is not given out now, MacCharles says, because those locations could change, depending on the location and severity of fires in the region.

But people should not rely on the existence an evacuation reception centre in a nearby town if they have friends or family they can go to. Leave those centres to people who have nowhere else to go, MacCharles says.

In any event, he says, COVID-19 protocols are still in place for evacuation reception centres, which will slow the process down.

B.C. Wildfires 2021