British Columbia’s Minister of Public Safety admitted his government’s response to the wildfires this week revealed “gaps in protocols” after being criticized by First Nations leaders.
Mike Farnworth’s comments came a day after the president of the tribal council of the province’s worst-hit region blasted the province’s early communication failure as “disgusting” as homes and other buildings in the Lytton First Nation were destroyed by fire.
“While there were difficult factors, early communications with the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council and the Oregon Jack Creek Band did not live up to expectations,” Farnworth said in a press release on Sunday. “I made my expectations clear to the ministry and was assured that immediate action had been taken to address the gaps in the protocols that contributed to this situation.”
The tribal council includes the Lytton First Nation, which owns land in and around the village of Lytton, and four other communities. The Oregon Jack Creek Band Preserve is located near Ashcroft, north of Lytton.
Chief Matt Pasco, who chairs the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, told CBC News it took hours for emergency authorities to respond to his requests for coordination and assistance as residents evacuated – several hours after receiving a call from provincial officials asking him about the welfare of the cattle at his neighboring ranch.
“People were dying, people were running for their lives – I get phone calls as a rancher about saving my cattle, but the province has not responded to the needs of our governing entities,” said Pasco in an interview. “If you ask me what makes me sick, this is it.”
He said his tribal council quickly asked the province to work with member First Nations to create staging posts for evacuees, gather information on evacuees, share up-to-date information on members still missing, reserve hotel rooms and transporting the evacuees.
“We took over what Emergency Management BC and [Thompson-Nicola Regional District] are supposed to do, ”he said.
Instead, these indigenous communities have been left to organize everything on their own without any additional funding “to save the people, give them everything they need,” he said, “but it has worked. been difficult “.
WATCH | The Lytton evacuee said to “take whatever you can and get out of there”:
He said the root of the problem is not just a lack of communication, but what he alleged is a lack of respect for Indigenous governments and leaders.
“They don’t even recognize us,” Pasco said. “When an emergency strikes, we’re not even important enough – they don’t honor our jurisdiction when I phone them to say, ‘These are the things we need. “
“This province does not recognize our systems of governance, what we bring and how we can protect our people. “
Emergency Management BC’s executive director of regional operations, Pader Brach, said First Nations agencies were “engaged as early as possible and sat at the same table as the provincial government,” and that from the start, the province has taken “a collaborative approach.”
Pasco took issue with EMBC’s claims that First Nations are included at the table from the start, or that the province fully shares its data with Indigenous emergency responders.
WATCH | Wildfires rage in British Columbia in a still dry climate:
“You have huge coordination issues when you don’t respect the jurisdiction and governance structures of another organization, and that’s what this province does,” Pasco said.
After the initial evacuation chaos ended, he said he received several calls later Thursday with apologies from senior ministry officials, but that it “took hours and hours” for their offers to improve. the coordination.
In his statement, Farnworth promised he would ask his ministry – which oversees emergencies – to order “improved communications with First Nations leaders in the event of an emergency” and that these leaders would be included in appeals. emergency coordination.
“We have worked to put in place better systems, based on the lessons learned,” said Farnworth.
The province said in a statement that in the future it would “ensure that First Nations leaders are aware” of its emergency activities, but that last week “the province had little time to develop a plan of action “in light of” the urgency of the tactical evacuation. “
Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately.
Evacuation centers have been set up in the following locations to assist anyone evacuated from a community threatened by a forest fire:
- Castlegar: Castlegar Community Complex, 2102 6th Ave.
- Chilliwack: Chilliwack Upper Secondary, 46363 Yale Road.
- Kelowna: Salvation Army, 1480 Sutherland Ave.
- Merritt: Merritt Civic Center, 1950 Mamette Ave.
Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency support services online, whether or not they access the services of an evacuation center. Those who cannot access the online registration can call the Emergency Support Services Registration Department at 1-800-585-9559.
Those looking for loved ones can contact the Canadian Red Cross for Family Reunification Services at 1-800-863-6582.