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State of confusion

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Rob Shaw: When wildfires threatened people and property in years past, a state of emergency was deemed necessary. But this year, the provincial government has dug in its heels. Why?

While much of B.C. worries about a record-breaking year of heat and wildfires, a bewildering debate is playing out in Victoria over whether the provincial government should declare a state of emergency.

On the one hand, some local and regional governments, BC Liberal and Green MLAs, First Nations leaders and concerned citizens argue a state of emergency would give the province expanded powers to dispatch firefighting resources, communicate and react more quickly to blazes that are threatening hundreds of thousands of hectares, as well as several communities.

On the other hand, Premier John Horgan and his cabinet are steadfast that such a declaration isn’t necessary, won’t be declared until emergency officials “recommend” it and wouldn’t doing anything to improve the all-out response already underway to fight fires across the province.

It’s tough for most of us to understand the disconnect between the two sides.

If the government has declared states of emergency in previous years due to wildfires under similar circumstances (we’ve already lost the entire town of Lytton this year to a fire), why wouldn’t it do so again this year?

Conversely, if the emergency declaration doesn’t actually do anything to help fight fires, why are some people pushing for it so hard?

“There is not one advantage at all from calling a state of emergency except to bring more people together,” Horgan said Friday.

“I’m absolutely prepared to call a state of emergency when it is required by those professionals that are putting their lives on the line to protect families, property and British Columbia. I appreciate the enthusiasm of the official opposition but again I think most British Columbians would prefer I listen to the people that know what they are doing and that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

The premier makes it sound cut and dry.

But on Thursday, senior officials from Emergency Management BC and the BC Wildfire Service told reporters there weren’t enough resources available to fight all the emerging fires, and that the province was instead working with private cattle ranchers and the forest sector to meet its needs.

“With the current resource challenges we have, we’re unable to commit to all new ignitions,” said spokesperson Kurtis Isfeld, adding the priority is instead on blazes that endanger life and safety.

It’s worth noting that those officials are referring to physical resources, like equipment and firefighters, and not financial resources. State of emergency or not, the B.C. government funds forest firefighting out of its budget contingencies, and it has almost $2 billion in wiggle room in that particular area this year – far more than the fire season is likely to cost. Money is not the issue.

Declaring an official state of emergency would give the B.C. government extraordinary powers to do things like seize control of private property, redirect the supply chain, move animals and cattle, enter private dwellings and land, destroy trees and structures, restrict travel, and suspend other provincial laws.

During COVID-19, the 16-month state of emergency let the Horgan cabinet mandate masks indoors, set fines for failing to follow COVID rules, and enact a travel ban between health authorities, among other things.

A quick read of the law would seem to suggest B.C. has a better chance at fighting fires with a state of emergency than without.

Perhaps that is exactly why such emergencies were declared during years in which wildfires were particularly bad, such as 2003, 2017, and 2018.

Not so, according to Emergency Management BC.

“If a provincial emergency was not declared during those events, it would have not changed our response in any way,” EMBC said in a statement.

Nothing in the province’s firefighting efforts in 2003, 2017 or 2018 required any action or resource that was authorized under a state of emergency, according to the agency.

That raises two interesting questions: Why have provincial politicians of all stripes for almost 20 years been trumpeting states of emergency as improving our firefighting response? And why is the province just now, during a horrendous wildfire season, digging in its heels to make what it also argues is largely a symbolic gesture?

Current Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said this in 2018 when declaring an emergency due to wildfires: “Taking this step will further ensure we can protect the public, property and infrastructure, and assist with firefighting efforts.”

Now, Farnworth and his ministry are trying to argue it doesn’t matter.

Unsurprisingly, that’s led to immense confusion on the ground.

A growing chorus of groups who typically expect provincial emergency declarations now say they now don’t understand what’s changed.

“The wildfires are rapidly draining resources and have directly impacted thousands of people, including a disproportionate number of First Nations who have been forced to evacuate and are grappling with a disorganized network of support and a lack of consistent recognition of their jurisdiction,” the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said in a statement Saturday.

“These fires pose an immediate threat to their lives and homes, and although local states of emergency have been called, the Horgan government is refusing to listen to the pleas for a provincial state of emergency that are coming from various regions and towns.”

Some municipal leaders are just as perplexed.

“We’ve got half the province on fire. What are they waiting for?” Thompson-Nicola Regional District Chair Ken Gillis told Kamloops This Week.

Opposition leader Shirley Bond, a former Solicitor General, has repeatedly raised the issue on social media.

“What Horgan conveniently fails to mention is that mayors and locally elected officials are calling for a state of emergency, not to mention British Columbians who had to start a petition to get his attention and calls for help from people living in fear as 300 plus fires rage,” she posted on Twitter.

Almost 13,000 people had signed that petition as of Saturday, demanding the province act and declare an emergency due to the wildfires.

It’s worth acknowledging the political considerations at play: Most of the ridings on fire or at risk are rural and represented by BC Liberal MLAs. When those MLAs complain on behalf of their constituents, it’s typical for the BC NDP, with a power base in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver, where wildfires are rarely a concern, to claim the noise is just political grandstanding.

It’s all part of the rural-urban divide that continues to grow in B.C. Both parties have immense blind spots in different parts of the province.

The premier, meanwhile, is not budging.

“When the professionals ask for it, we’ll do it,” he said, referencing the same emergency officials who’ve told reporters they lack the resources to fight the fires. “But they haven’t yet.”

The premier also rejected the suggestion that the tourism sector is pressuring the province to hold off on a state of emergency out of fear it would discourage people from travelling in B.C. during a time when the industry is struggling to recover from COVID-19.

That argument would make the most sense – that major players in the hotel and resort sector are pressuring politicians to keep the word “emergency” off the books so as to not scare away out-of-province tourists and families looking to book vacations.

But the premier insists that’s not the reason either.

“The tourism industry is not top of mind today, the fire season is,” said Horgan.

We’ll have to take the premier at his word on that one.

But something still doesn’t add up. If all of this is just a largely symbolic gesture, as the premier and his government argue, why fight it so hard? Why not just make the declaration and move to more important matters?

Until – or if – that happens, the debate over whether to declare a state of emergency appears destined to leave the public in a state of confusion.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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