The two-lane Salmon River Bridge and the spring flooding that occurs annually around it is one area that causes problems for area residents. (File photo)

Shuswap emergency team tops in B.C. when disasters strike

Wildfires of 1998 prompted development of a regional approach to emergencies

When it comes to flooding, wildfires and other disasters threatening people in the Shuswap, they’re in good hands.

The Shuswap Emergency Program, or SEP, is considered a model for other parts of B.C.

“We’re recognized as leaders in the province,” explained Derek Sutherland, team leader of Protective Services with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District to city council. “The province turns to us when they need assistance.”

SEP is shared by the City of Salmon Arm, the District of Sicamous and CSRD electoral areas C, E, D and F. It is managed by the CSRD.

It all started following the 1998 Silver Creek wildfire that saw 7,000 residents evacuated.

“We heard at the time, it was the largest evacuation in Canadian history due to wildfires,” Sutherland said, explaining 7,000 is no longer a very large number given recent events like the evacuation of 80,000 during the Fort McMurray wildfire.

The 1998 wildfire revealed the need for a better emergency response plan.

“The powers that be at that time decided a regional approach would be the most effective way for the Shuswap area,” he said.

The three areas collaborated, creating SEMP, with the ‘M’ for management later dropped. Disasters – when a hazard intersects with a population – can now be handled through one emergency operations centre (EOC), with one emergency program coordinator, Tom Hansen, and one part-time facilitator, Cathy Semchuk, which includes her position as Emergency Social Services (ESS) director.

As well as staff, equipment can be shared, creating economies of scale. Sutherland says the program’s success is due to the work over the years of Semchuk and retired coordinator Cliff Doherty.

Read more: Putting focus on preparedness

Read more: Accommodation for livestock, evacuees offered

Read more: Evacuated cats find ideal haven in Salmon Arm

Significant flooding occurred in 2012, 2017 and 2018.

“When things are flooding in Salmon Arm, flooding in Blind Bay and flooding in Sicamous, we can coordinate a response with one EOC…”

He says ESS is always on call. If Fire Chief Brad Shirley needs help following a fire, he can call ESS which makes sure the basic needs of food, shelter and security for the victims are filled.

Sutherland says he’s very proud of the program, now with 86 volunteers, Semchuk has built.

ESS also helps out other regions; in 2017, for instance, when evacuees from the Williams Lake wildfires were heading to Kamloops, hundreds of evacuees came through Salmon Arm’s evacuation centre.

The Shuswap Emergency Program also has a number of special teams such as the structural protection unit – sprinkler trailers to protect homes, which are deployed provincially when not in use in the Columbia-Shuswap. There’s also the EOC volunteer core, a team of volunteers who take the pressure off program staff, and mobile operations, a five-ton truck that can be dispatched to the scene of disasters.

Coun. Kevin Flynn, who invited SEP to present, thanked Sutherland, his team and fire chief Shirley.

“I was shocked during election campaigning and all candidates’ meetings how few people know what we have… It’s a multi-jurisdictional approach, a model provincially – we’re really lucky to have the team we have and the structure we have.”

Read more: Planning for all emergencies

Read more: Salmon Arm, regional district send firefighters north

Read more: Salmon River might not rise beyond last week’s high

Read more: More Shuswap firefighters join battle against B.C.’s wildfires


@SalmonArm
marthawickett@saobserver.net

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