The moment Nelson gets put on evacuation order due to wildfire, Andrew Bellerby will suddenly be in charge of a network of institutions that will jump into collaborative action to ensure residents’ safety and to escort them out of the community.
The RDCK’s regional fire chief for the last 18 months, Bellerby moved to the Kootenays after working in the U.K. as an anti-terrorism specialist and incident commander who responded to over 5,000 “severe” emergencies during that time. And now that he’s facing one of B.C.’s worst fire seasons in decades, he’s feeling a little on-edge.
“We’re dodging bullets every single day,” Bellerby told the Star.
“Last Thursday was the beginning of a 15-day dry spell. With the available fuels and projected winds, we’re looking at our highest point in the burn index in the last 15 years. And we’re not going to get any assistance from the rain.”
That’s information he came by during a recent conference call with the Southeast Fire Centre, which he’s constantly in communication with. With conditions as they are, the RDCK has elected to open their emergency command operation already — it’s fully operational on Lakeside Drive.
“If anything happens anywhere close to Nelson, or any other communities within the RDCK, we hear about it within minutes and send out operation commanders to do on-scene inspections and relay that information back to us.”
At that point, it’s up the RDCK’s chief administration officer Stuart Horn and board chair Karen Hamling to put out either an evacuation alert, which requires residents to be ready to evacuate at any moment, or an evacuation order — which means they need to hit the road right away.
The RDCK will then send out an emergency alert, via email, to the approximately 5,700 residents who are currently signed up for it. That’s less than 10 per cent of the population, though, so they’ll deploy staff and work with organizations such as Nelson Fire Rescue and the Nelson Police Department to go door to door and ensure everyone’s getting out of town.
Bellerby has access to a database, backed up in both Canada and the U.S., which he can access remotely from anywhere in the world.
That is the database the emergency operation team will be using to keep track of which residents have successfully left, which houses are still occupied, and where the fleeing families are destined.
Residents must communicate with RDCK staff or other agencies such as the police or fire departments to be included in the database, but if they don’t, house checks will be completed.
“We’re very optimistic that as a department and as a region we’ve done a lot of pre-planning, and we’re working as efficiently as possible, but we’re feeling very pensive because the slightest spark could create something in our region. We’re very nervous.”
Right now they’re looking at the capacity of local campgrounds, trouble-shooting for communities that only have one access road, and mapping out the planned trajectories evacuees would take.
Horn is feeling confident that the RDCK’s ducks are in a row as well, but he’s concerned more people haven’t signed up for the emergency alerts.
“It’s been nerve-wracking to say the least,” he told the Star.
“The thing about these situations is you don’t know what could happen to change your situation. I’m dealing with people who are legitimately concerned about their property and well-being, and we’re talking about things that are irreplaceable, so the stakes are incredibly high.”
There’s a wealth of information on the RDCK’s website, according to Horn, including what should be included in a 72-hour kit every family should prepare ahead of time. The website is also the place to sign up for emergency alerts.
Horn has called evacuation orders in the RDCK before, most recently for a mudslide in Kaslo and flooding in the Slocan Valley, but he said wildfires are a dramatically different situation.
“For the last few weeks we’ve been doing everything to prepare for the fires that may be coming, and we have a fantastic team that has done an incredible amount of pre-planning so that we’ll be prepared if an incident does happen.”
To sign up for the emergency alerts, visit rdck.ca.