Opinion: Protecting communities like Lytton from future disasters requires a new mindset around emergency preparedness. Protections for those facing long-term displacement must be front and centre.

This article was originally published by the Vancouver Sun on August 9th, 2021.

The Lytton wildfire has revealed serious gaps in Canada’s climate emergency response.

Policy-makers must get out of a mindset of seeing catastrophic wildfires as “once in a hundred year events.” Their increased frequency, duration, and severity as a symptom of, and a major contributor to, climate change has been our new normal for some time.

Indeed, B.C.’s deadly heat waves and severe wildfire season were foreseen in 2019. Global studies, meanwhile, show a marked increase in wildfire season duration; rising wildfire suppression, cleanup, and insurance costs; and a shift to a year-long wildfire season in some regions.

It is vital that Canada deploy policies now that prepare, empower, and protect vulnerable communities as we face climate change, and grapple with the human displacement projected to ensue across the country as a consequence.

We have risen to extraordinary challenges before, and we will again. Emergency Management B.C., the B.C. Wildfire Service, community firefighting and ambulance services, and numerous agencies are front line workers for B.C. wildfire response, protecting people, belongings, territories, habitats, and cultural lodestones.

They and front line communities impacted by wildfires, with Indigenous communities disproportionately represented, have shown resilience and ingenuity in their response, often at great personal cost. We have gained valuable experience in the process.

For instance, Indigenous communities’ traditional practices of wildfire management honed over millenia, and their right to exercise authority over their land and care for their communities, have often not been recognized in times of emergency, causing missed opportunities in abating wildfires or responding efficiently. We now know to incorporate local expertise and jurisdiction in emergency response.

Sadly, Lytton shows that research and policy have yet to translate into practice in climate disaster response. The 2019 tripartite Memorandum of Understanding between British Columbia and First Nations leadership drew lessons from the 2017 wildfires and committed the federal and provincial governments to supporting Indigenous leadership in emergency management and providing communities on reserves “emergency management support comparable to what is currently provided to other local authorities.”

Despite this, troubling jurisdictional and communication-related challenges continued unchanged, hindering speedy and coordinated multi-agency response at Lytton. Further, provincially, understaffing, unresponsive leadership, poor working conditions, and burnout factored into the inability of ambulance services to respond sufficiently to the foreseeable heat wave that preceded the Lytton wildfire.

We must transform existing knowledge and political commitments on emergency response into action; we must not repeat past mistakes.

Part of the new normal, however, is outside the realm of our existing policy landscape. The more frequent climate-related disasters of the future, whether arising from extreme rain and heat, warming of the Arctic in Canada at three times the global average, or the moon “wobble”-exacerbated flooding predicted for the 2030s, will cause more frequent flows of distressed households forced to move to safety. Canada, however, has no climate displacement policy. This must change. In the past decade, mismanaged small-scale disaster evacuations further traumatized already devastated communities.

We can do better.

As was the case with COVID, there will be a delay until there is widespread public awareness of the seriousness of coming challenges. We need resolute and forward-thinking leadership now to protect families into the future. We must reinvest in climate mitigation to stop worsening global warming; reduce the exposure of society’s most vulnerable; empower communities, individuals, and businesses to take climate action on their own; and scale up Canada’s climate adaptation plan’s commitments while adding provisions for climate displacement.

There is also an opportunity, through this work, to honour our political commitments to the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to address the concerns of Indigenous communities around reciprocity, cultural imperatives, timely communications, histories of forced relocations, and respect for sovereignty, land-based expertise, and jurisdiction, among others. Enacting strong government-to-government agreements is necessary for effective climate collaboration.

While federal, provincial, Indigenous, and cross-jurisdictional policy frameworks on climate displacement will be vital, emerging lessons from other countries show that fostering resilience and enabling mobility to avoid harm is a whole-of-society issue. Future waves of disaster, trauma, loss, and displacement can be flattened, via planning, policy, and practice by actors across society. Emergency response workers even now are shoulder to shoulder with the fierce and courageous healthcare and essential workers who continue battling the pandemic.

We as a society owe our disaster responders the planning, co-operation, funding, recruitment, overflow capacity, and fortification they require to protect all of us as we hit more and more projected climate consequences. And just as protecting our strained healthcare system begins with all of us as individuals following public health guidelines, so will we be lowering the future burden on the emergency response system if we aggressively cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and build up our resilience and mobility options now, individually and collectively.

This is the new front line of our new normal, and we all have a part to play.

Sarah Kamal is a UBC Sustainability Scholar who has just completed a forthcoming report on emerging practices in responding to climate change-driven displacement. George P.R. Benson is the co-founder and managing director of the Vancouver-based non-profit the Climate Migrants and Refugees Project.