By Korie Marshall

The Robson Valley is no stranger to emergency situations, whether it is long term power outages due to wildfires, threats to the water supply due to high rains, or dealing with stranded travelers. It may only be a matter of when, not if, the next one happens.

The Village of Valemount is working on an emergency plan, but there isn’t yet a plan for how to tell residents what they should do, or even how they will know there is an emergency.

Michael Higgins from BC Emergency services says whatever the emergency, you have 2 options – shelter in place or evacuate. Knowing how to do each are the basics of emergency response, but being able to communicate that there is an emergency – when it might not be apparent to everyone – is also very important.

Higgins’ presentations to Council and to the public at the Village-hosted Open House on Nov. 28 stressed that in order to react well in an emergency situation, you need to plan ahead, and you need to be able to communicate the severity of the situation. He says emergency planning is a team effort – your family is a team, and so is your community.

If senior government in a community takes a lead in preparing for emergencies, the community members will follow, take steps to prepare themselves, and will be part of the team, Higgins told Council on Nov. 12. And the community told Council the emergency plan is important to them – it was third on the list of topics the community wanted to discuss that night.

“We do live in an area that has multiple opportunities for hazards and it is definitely a big thing on my mind and on the minds of the Emergency Planning Committee,” Councillor Sandy Salt told the community.

She said 15 people showed up for the first meeting of the new Emergency Planning Committee on Nov. 27, which shows the commitment, dedication and interest of the community.

Valemount’s Emergency Measures Bylaw from 1996 and the Municipal Emergency Plan are both out of date. Section 6 of the BC Emergency Program Act says that a municipality is responsible for the direction and control of emergency responses, and must establish and maintain an emergency management organization and coordinator. Braden Hutchins, the Village’s Deputy corporate Officer, and Barbie Bruce, a local citizen, have been appointed as emergency coordinators. The Village worked over the summer to invite members from the Wildfire Protection Committee, RCMP, Northern Health, members from the fire department, fire zone, school board, Regional District, CN, LDM, Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, and members of the public to join the committee.

Some specific concerns raised by residents on Nov. 28 related to the rail line with its two level crossings in town, and the apparent lack of escape routes, particularly for the seniors housing on Main St, should a disaster involving the rail happen. John Grogan suggested the community and Council should lobby for a slow order through the community until a federal inquiry on train accidents has been concluded. Mayor Andru McCracken said that sounds appropriate. He also pointed out that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities convinced the federal government to require rail companies to provide lists of dangerous commodities to the communities they travel through. But more should be done by the rail companies to protect communities when an incident occurs, McCracken says.

Other residents voiced concerns about cold weather shelters, and what to do if the power goes out in extreme cold. Councillor Salt said that is another issue the committee is looking at, and noted the Community Hall would be an option, as well as potentially the schools.

“It sounds like a cop-out, but we need to be resilient as a community,” said McCracken, suggesting residents should get to know the options available around them, including neighbours who have wood stoves. He says a weather event like the ice storm of January 1998, when freezing rain coated areas of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick with up to four inches of ice, toppling trees and utility poles and cutting off power for up to a month in massive areas, is an ever present risk. “We need to take care of ourselves; it is a really important component,” McCracken said.

Paul Fretts’ concern was communication – if the power goes out, radio goes down and he wouldn’t know if evacuation was required. McCracken says the Valemount Entertainment Society, who runs VCTV, also re-broadcasts three radio stations, and has a generator at the tower. During a prolonged power outage, 104.1 FM (CISN Country) can be pre-empted to provide emergency information. McCracken noted you might not remember the channel, but if you remember it exists, you could find it on your battery powered radio or your car stereo.

Michael Lewis asked if the Village has a checklist, or a list of items you should have in an emergency kit. Michael Higgins responded that Emergency BC and the government of Canada have 72-hour preparedness guides and lists for emergency kits online, and offered some booklets and information from his booth.

A statement from the Village says the emergency plan currently has a skeleton framework, and work is being done to flesh it out.

A communication plan has not yet been worked out, but the Village is collecting names and contact information for people who are willing to help in an emergency. Anyone can call the Village office and let them know if they are able and interested. The next meeting of the Emergency Planning Committee has not yet been scheduled, but
will be open to the public.

The Village’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan was completed in 2012, and is available on the Village’s website. The CWPP does contain information about evacuation of people and livestock in the Valemount area, and while that plan is focused on the threat of wildfire, Higgins says no matter what the threat, there is really only two options – what he calls “stay or go.”

“It’s our natural instinct,” says Higgins, “something we have done as long as we can remember. We seek shelter when bad things happen.” He says being able to assess the threat, and knowing how to either shelter in place or to evacuate are the most important pieces of being able to protect ourselves.