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New B.C. disaster preparation, response and recovery laws coming soon

Union of B.C. Municipalities told changes needed as disasters become more frequent
Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma, left, and B.C. Premier David Eby walk together as they arrive for a meeting at the Columbia Shuswap Regional District offices, in Salmon Arm, B.C., Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. Ma says the province will soon be ready to introduce new laws to govern responses to increasingly frequent natural disasters such as wildfires and flooding. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

British Columbia’s emergency management minister said the province will be ready to introduce “in the coming weeks” new laws to govern responses to increasingly frequent natural disasters such as wildfires and flooding.

Bowinn Ma told a gathering at the Union of B.C. Municipalities’ annual convention in Vancouver Tuesday that laws will address the four phases of emergency management, ranging from preparedness and mitigation to response and recovery.

Ma told B.C.’s local politicians that the current Emergency Program Act focusing on disaster response has not been updated since 1993 and hasn’t kept up with the increasing frequency of extreme weather brought on by climate change.

Also at the convention, health and weather officials warned B.C. communities that the higher frequency and size of wildfires in recent years will likely continue or get even worse, with the resulting smoke carrying long-term impacts on people’s health.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province had already seen record demand on emergency services in hospitals this summer, and the wildfire-induced smoke has created air quality challenges that may lead to even higher demand in the future.

Dix said the province has added about 5,400 new nurses this year, but the number isn’t “close to enough” to address the support that will be needed to handle possible public health issues arising from wildfire smoke and other patient needs.

Experts speaking at the convention said studies have shown a wide range of possible health issues stemming from smoke exposure, such as increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, as well as a possible reduction in cognitive functions and long-term harm for prenatal exposure.

B.C. Centre for Disease Control scientist Angela Yao said it is now very important that communities and households plan for poor air quality days, creating indoor spaces with proper ventilation to ward off the effects of breathing in minute particles in the air.

“I hope all of you are now convinced that wildfire and wildfire smoke is here to stay, and it is something that we will need to learn to live with,” Yao told delegates on Tuesday.

Ma said the update to B.C.’s emergency management laws reflects that recognition, noting the intensifying scales of disasters such as this year’s record-breaking wildfire season on local communities make the urgency of the situation hard to miss.

“I know that from catastrophic floods, wildfires to extreme weather events, there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re experiencing the impacts of a changing climate,” Ma said. “And it is happening at an increased rate. Many communities have had to face new disasters while still trying to recover from previous disasters.”

She said the province will implement the new emergency management laws in phases, and municipalities still have opportunities to submit their input to the province on possible adjustments through the end of the year.

According to the BC Wildfire Service, there were 389 active blazes in the province as of Tuesday afternoon, with 148 burning out of control and 11 classified as “fires of note” for their high visibility or potential threat to populated areas.

In total, wildfires have burned more than 24,700 square kilometres across British Columbia this year.