Interview: Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth

The Fraser Valley Current recently interviewed Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth on the BC Government’s disaster preparation work.

By Tyler Olsen | December 9, 2022 |12:04 pm

Fraser Valley Current managing editor Tyler Olsen interviewed Mike Farnworth, BC’s public safety minster, on Dec. 1, 2022.

You can read a story that summarizes key points of the conversation here. 

At the time of the interview, Farnworth was responsible for emergency preparedness in British Columbia. Six days later, on Dec. 7, Premier David Eby announced the creation of a new ministry to handle emergency planning and preparedness. As Minister of Emergency Preparedness and Climate Readiness, Bowinn Ma will be responsible for reducing BC’s susceptibility to natural disasters. (You can read Ma’s mandate letter here.)

She won’t be starting from scratch, however. In his interview with The Current, Farnworth spoke of work done over the past month to set the stage for new legislation and processes meant to put BC on a steadier footing.

The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity and concision. 

FVC: “What has been learned and what would you do differently now as opposed to 2021 when an extreme weather event happens?
Mike Farnworth: One of the challenges that last year posed was because it was so unprecedented, I don’t think anyone really understood at that point what an atmospheric river really was. Prior to last year, no one really [knew], unless you’re in the meteorological circles. It was fall rain, a lot of fall rain. And I don’t think anybody expected the magnitude.

So I think we have a better understanding now of what that can mean. And I think the other thing, too, is the majority of our preparation is normally around freshet right? You know, that that’s coming. So a lot of our predictions and our snowpack monitoring, and all of those things, are geared to the spring freshet. And so you could watch it coming and you can make predictions, and you can prepare far more effectively. And you can see it on a whole range of things, whether it’s watching the flood coming up to the dikes, whether it’s preparing to move animals out; those kinds of things.

Usually the concern in November has really always tended to focus more, when it comes to flooding, on the island, because it doesn’t get the freshet, but it gets the November storms. And so I think this really brought home the potential impact of a November event, like the storm, in a way that we have never seen previous to last year in 2021.

FVC: What, though, has the government done to enable a better response?

MF: OK. In that sense, I think two things:

One, on our EOC (Emergency Operation Centre) side of things, there’s the center out in Chilliwack that is on the highest point of ground. Looking at obviously the work that’s underway in terms on the dikes and the diking strategy which already was underway, but now has an even greater importance and urgency; the issues around the flood-mapping: understanding the floodplain better, recognizing [that] given the way that so much shifted from this event that we need to be doing a lot more in terms of understanding the stream flows, the river flows, what’s the infrastructure. I don’t just mean in the valley, but going all the way up the canyon and going ‘OK, what was there was clearly not adequate. What does it need to be in terms of the repairs?’ Like what kind of speed flows do they need to be able to withstand?
“I think on one of the footings, for example, on the Coquihalla… now they’re going no, it really needs to be a magnitude, I think of 10 times.” [Farnworth indicated that his numbers may be imprecise.]

FVC: There’s a flood strategy in the works and that’s slated to be finished next year. That flood strategy is gonna come out and it’s gonna say, we need to do X, Y and Z, and all of these things are going to cost billions. How confident can we be that that money will follow?

MF: I have a lot of confidence in that for a couple of reasons. One, the [federal] Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) money that is flowing has that 15% build back better in it.

Farnworth was alluding to the federal disaster financial assistance program that provides funding to people and government to rebuild after a disaster. That program provides extra money to allow governments to not only replace damaged infrastructure, but build it to a higher standard that can hopefully withstand a future extreme weather event.

MF: At the same time the feds are reviewing their DFA funding. There’s a recognition that in terms of our diking strategy that’s underway, and the money that’s been made available to do things such as, understanding the floodplains better, the sites that were excavated, or the 550 debris sites that were identified—I think nearly all of them now have been removed.

And then some of the dredging/channel reconstruction that has taken place on some of the streams already.

So that stuff’s being done. We’re waiting for the report back from Abbotsford on the options around the pump station and the repairs on the dike site. So I’m confident that as this stuff comes back, that we will be in a position to go, “OK, here’s the improvements that need to be made.’ And you’re already seeing that in the sense that we go, ‘OK, we can’t just put back what was there. It has to be built back to withstand what we saw last November.’

FVC: What I’m saying though is: the flood strategy is going to say not just ‘Repair what was damaged, or repair what was damaged better,’ but it’s going to say: ‘All these places that weren’t damaged are going to need to be improved.’

MF: I think that’s where understanding at the local level [of] the risk—and that, in many ways fits into the overhaul on the emergency program—which [is] scheduled for introduction next year—that’s being co-developed with First Nations.

I think you’ve heard me say it was always in this province, in fact most of the country, about response and recovery. And with the Sendai Framework, which is underpinning the new legislation, it’s about identifying the risks and mitigation, along with those other tools. I think that’s going to be the critical part: understanding what that risk is, and that’s why things such as the better mapping, using LiDAR, understanding the impact, and looking at the various disasters collectively, and not just as an individual. That array.

(The Sendai Framework is an international strategy that provides guidelines to enable governments to reduce the risks of disaster and the consequences when they do occur.)

MF: We got the flood, but what’s the impact from the fires in terms of slopes and burning down on the top? Basically eliminating a lot of that organic layer and then exposing, how’s that [affect] the geomorphology. It’s using the latest technology to understand those areas?

FVC: Then, understanding that, then will that money follow that? And how quickly?

MF: I would say, yeah, there’s a recognition by government that a lot more has to be done. I mean, I think in terms of the dikes, I think $9 billion is often [the number] put out there. Yeah, that’s obviously not something that can be done in a year. I think you will be looking at, okay, over the years. That’s going to require federal help, as well as provincial help.

FVC: It makes obvious sense that you can’t do that all in one year. At the same time, that’s something we’ve heard for a long time. It’s like, ‘We want to do this, we need to do this.’ And yet we’ve seen the number of extreme weather events increasing.

Should people feel confident that their government, and whoever is in charge can react and improve that resistance as quickly as the weather and climate are changing?

MF: That’s where a number of the initiatives that you’re seeing now, I think, demonstrate government’s commitment. The Forest Service is going to a year-round model as opposed to just a seasonal model, so that you’re able to be doing work on a year-round basis. In the case of fires, for example, that’s fuel mitigation, that’s incorporating and using traditional Aboriginal knowledge on fuel management and back burning and those kinds of things. If you’re able to do more there, and mitigate some of the effects on fires in terms of slope and things like that, you’re still going to get fires, but hopefully not as catastrophic or as intense. That pays dividends on the slope and the forest fires that communities face.

At the same time, [there is] work being done on the mapping to identify where the risks are and, what’s happened with floodplains over the last [year].

I mention LiDAR because I think what it’s doing is revolutionizing our ability to understand what’s happening on the land base in a way that we never had before. It’s going to give a far more accurate understanding of what is exactly happening. And then on the infrastructure side, this in some ways becomes a new benchmark. OK, we’re building a road, doing repairs, it’s got to be able to withstand what we saw. So all of those things start to accumulate.

Then the other is the flood strategy. Before it was a patchwork approach. It was: ‘The local government, you’re now responsible.’ Now, it’s: ‘Well, wait a sec, the province is going to be having a greater role.’

And you’re going to have to have investments in strengthening dikes, but also developing policies when it comes to rebuilding. And we’re already starting to do that. So we saw the first real initiative of that in BC, in Grand Forks, to pull back, to not rebuild the neighborhood of Rockwell. Not rebuild in that location, but move that somewhere else; pull that dike back, to allow the river to be able to run to move. It’s not quite as constrained now. Merritt has asked us to look at [whether] we would consider a Crown land swap or something like that.

So that is now something on the table that is being put into practice. Is it appropriate for every situation? No. You’re going to be looking at different kinds of options. In some areas, you can pull a dike back. In other areas, you may not be able to pull it back, it’s going to have to be strengthened. And that’s where things like the pump station come in.

While we’re on that, I think the other thing that this demonstrated is that we have to take a much more holistic approach; that it’s not just the flood prevention or the drainage that needs to take place, but it’s other values that have to be incorporated. So First Nations can’t be ignored.

They are part and parcel of understanding what needs to be done. Fish values are critical, you know. In my view, there should not be a pump station built in the future that is not fish-friendly. I mean, we saw—it was heartbreaking seeing all those fish on there get pumped up and ground up. I’d say it’s a much more holistic, comprehensive approach going forward than we have seen in the past.

FVC: I wanted to ask you about how BC deals with evacuees and evacuation. My mom volunteered in an evacuation center in Kamloops a few years ago. I’ve heard that in a lot of these places, these volunteers have been asked to do it once but then they keep getting asked again and again. And it’s very dependent on both municipal capabilities, in some places, and volunteer capabilities. So is BC looking at changing that?

MF: The issue around that started to appear even before this event, because we’ve had it with COVID. Prior to COVID. I think everyone was comfortable with our system running strictly on volunteers.

COVID put some real challenges because it reduced that volunteer base, particularly when a large number of people, early on, were not vaccinated.

That being said, I think volunteers are always going to be a critical component. But I do think that we will be looking at [if] there [are] other ways in which we can deliver those services when they’re needed.

That may be by working with other agencies, as we’ve done with the Red Cross, for example. I also think it may well be training and it’s also building capacity in communities. It’s also building capacity—this is another area of Indigenous participation and Indigenous involvement. [It] is ensuring they have the capacity to be able to deal with evacuees in a culturally appropriate way.

Farnworth said the province has also learned from First Nations, including Tkemlups First Nation near Kamloops, which started providing locals a place to board their pets and animals during 2017’s fire season. “In 2017, that was not part of EMBC’s mandate; pets were an afterthought,” he said. But officials have learned that offering places for animals increases the likelihood that people will choose to evacuate.

FVC: “A couple months ago, there was the fire near Hope… We heard during the floods that these smaller communities had difficulties just because they have a lack of capacity and they just don’t have as many people to deal with all the things you need when you’ve got a large land base and small tax base. So I’m wondering what the government is doing to help those places, but also in events like the fire, where their local First Nations said they didn’t have great communication between themselves and the local municipality?”

MF: That’s where, one, the legislation comes in: the new Act. And two: capacity-building isn’t just with First Nations in that sense. It’s also where the government can work with local governments to say, ‘Hey, here’s what you have to have,’ and some of the requirements in terms of the kinds of emergency plans that you have to have in place. [So] that when something does happen, we need to ensure that that communication is taking place with your local First Nations, that their people are working together, not at cross purposes.

FVC: So will the resources follow to enable that?

MF: Some of those resources are already following. So for example, in the initiatives budget, there’s emergency preparedness funding and it’s $110 million. And then there’s another $10 million specifically for First Nations … So once the new legislation is passed, and the regulations flow from that, I expect you’ll see focus in those areas as well.

FVC: And you think there’ll be enough funding because there’s a lot of First Nations, a lot of small communities?

MF: We know that First Nations and small communities, that’s where a lot of the focus is. A lot of the big municipalities, they’re fine. And even a lot of smaller ones that have now been through this a couple times, they’ve identified where their gaps are, and in many cases those gaps have been addressed but others will require more work from the government.

Look at it this way: Emergency preparedness over the coming years, as we know, is going to get more and more attention, because climate change is making that a necessity.

FVC: As the province’s spending grows, do you see a larger percentage of that spending—

MF: Let’s put it this way: I see more investments in emergency preparedness and infrastructure in the coming years. I mean, it’s just a fact of life.

FVC: More investments, not just in raw terms, but in like, getting ahead?

MF: I think if you’re going to get ahead, you’re going to have to spend. Now that’s done in a variety of different ways, right? It’s done when you’re building infrastructure, when you’re building a bridge, when you’re redoing the road, when you’re expanding a highway, when you’re building bridges, when you’re building schools, when you’re looking at housing developments, all of those things come together.

Farnworth’s assistant indicated there was time for one more question.

FVC: What more needs to be done, what more will be done, to help people who are disabled, people who have language difficulties, and people who are maybe seniors, especially in heat domes, and those types of events?

MF: We’ve got the new persons with disabilities legislation, so that has an impact.

In terms of evacuation centers, recognizing that in the Lower Mainland, for example, we have a huge diversity of language. There’s a lot that’s already available, but we need to ensure that that’s not just an ad hoc basis, but is built into the system.

Around the heat domes. The recommendations that came out of the reports that have been done, the Coroner’s report, a lot of those recommendations are being implemented and worked on. So I think we’re in a much better place than we were when that happened.

And I think we’ve already seen those changes in terms of how government communicates this past summer, because we had some potential heat domes—nothing like what we experienced—but they were there and they gave us opportunity to try to ensure the new protocols were in place in terms of the temperature guidelines of when that starts to trigger the province, the local government to undertake certain actions.

FVC: And you think there’s enough resources there to reach people in their homes rather than making them come to it?

MF: I think there’s a lot of resources there. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be areas that may need to be improved on because you’re always looking and as technology changes, the ability to do things, to do better and better, is there and we need to be on top of that.

What we have, I think, is a good idea now and a better understanding of the neighborhoods that were impacted, disproportionately in the heat dome in a way that we didn’t have prior to that. And I think that’s where the focus is great.

The interview concluded.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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