Wildfire evacuees penalized for fleeing to Alberta

Written By Rob Shaw

“Some people did the right thing — they went to the closest place they could get to, where it was safe for them and their family.”

––Mike Bernier

When Tumbler Ridge residents were abruptly ordered to evacuate due to wildfires earlier this month, the province urged the 2,400 residents to drive more than an hour to nearby Dawson Creek. But for some, living so close to Alberta, it was easier, faster and safer to take the other road out of town across the border to Grande Prairie. Little did those people know, doing so meant they’d be shut out of provincial aid.

More than 100 evacuees are estimated to have been ruled ineligible for financial aid by Emergency Management BC in the Tumbler Ridge evacuation, because of provincial government policy that forbid providing vouchers for food, hotels or other assistance to those who travelled out-of-province.

“It has to be looked at so that British Columbians, if they are evacuated from their communities, there’s supports wherever they go to,” said Tumbler Ridge Mayor Darryl Krakowka. “I feel for those residents. I haven’t stopped fighting it.”

Residents were evacuated for a week because of the West Kiskatinaw River wildfire. The order was lifted June 15.

Krakowka said he’s taken the issue directly to Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma, and is expecting a response. Ma declined an interview request.

‘Sorry, you don’t qualify’

The policy might make sense to bureaucrats in Victoria and Vancouver, but for B.C.’s rural border towns, where Alberta can be the best option in an emergency, the rule is outrageous, says Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier.

“Some people did the right thing — they went to the closest place they could get to, where it was safe for them and their family, and then started making phone calls back to B.C. saying I need help,” said Bernier.

Some Tumbler Ridge evacuees drove to Grand Prairie to escape the wildfire. [Image Pacific-Map]

“To be told that somebody went 10 minutes over the Alberta border and sorry you don’t qualify for help now, was obviously very troubling for people who thought they were doing the right thing.”

“People aren’t looking to take advantage of the system.”

Mike Bernier

The issue highlights a policy problem for the B.C. government during a year in which there are expected to be record number of wildfires and, potentially, record number of evacuations as well. It also exposes the archaic system of paper registration check-in centres during evacuations that offer little flexibility during an emergency.

“People aren’t looking to take advantage of the system, it’s an, ‘Oh I’m in a hotel, I hear there might be supports to offset or lower the costs.’ Or, ‘I hear there’s vouchers, maybe I can get assistance for groceries since I’m not at home and can’t afford to eat in a restaurant for who knows how long,’” said Bernier.

“Where it was very troubling though, and I confirmed this with the ministry, was, ‘Sorry if you chose to go to Alberta, you don’t qualify. If you would like a food voucher you have to drive back to British Columbia and be finding supports in B.C.’ And so a lot of people told me [they’re] not going to spend another $100 or so on gas to drive to B.C. to get a $50 food voucher.”

“If they are evacuated from their communities, there [needs to be] supports wherever they go.”

Darryl Krakowka

The Emergency Management ministry issued a statement arguing it would not help people who went to Alberta when there was still enough space in other B.C. cities first.

“When a community is evacuated, neighbouring communities set up evacuation reception centres to provide evacuees with vouchers to local hotels, grocery stores and restaurants that they have established relationships with as part of their emergency management plans,” said the ministry.

“In this case, Fort St. John, Chetwynd and Dawson Creek established reception centres and among the three, there was enough accommodation to support evacuees.”

For some, it made sense to drive to Grand Prairie

The argument makes little sense in the heat of the moment, when people are stressed and anxious, said Krakowka. 

He said some people evacuated to Dawson Creek as the province asked, only to discover after an hour and a half drive that it was full. The province then asked them to go to Fort St. John, another hour’s drive away. But with no guarantee there was space there, for some it made more sense to drive to Grand Prairie instead, because it is a fairly large city that has several hotels and occupancy wouldn’t be a problem, said Krakowka.

“I understand why residents did it, and I have not let that go,” he said.

Those who went to Alberta, and were told there was no help available for them at the time, also aren’t eligible to have any of their costs reimbursed. “Emergency Support Services is not a reimbursement system,” said the ministry statement.

“Emergency Support Services is not a reimbursement system.”

Ministry of Emergency Management

But maybe it should be, argued Bernier.

British Columbia citizens, who pay their taxes, and then suddenly need help due to a natural disaster that is no fault of their own, shouldn’t be caught up in red tape over where they go, or how they seek safety and shelter for their families in an emergency, said Bernier.

The issue, he added, is not particularly ideological. It could just as easily impact an NDP-held riding — say Boundary-Similkameen, where if a wildfire forced an evacuation around Osoyoos or Oliver, and Highway 97 to Penticton was blocked off, it might well be safer and easier for residents to cross the border into the United States.

Under B.C. policy though, they’d suddenly be ineligible for aid.

‘Archaic’ support system fails to support

The policy also appears to date back to the BC Liberal time in government, and has not been changed under six years of NDP governance. Bernier and Krakowka say they don’t want to make it a partisan issue.

The Kitkatinaw River fire perimeter on Jun. 9. [Map BC Wildfire Service]

Though Bernier is a BC United MLA (formerly the BC Liberal Party), he said he appreciated NDP minister Ma reaching out to him during the wildfire to get his input. In general, he said he’s had quick and responsive conversations with ministry staff. They all acknowledge the policy, said Bernier, but nobody has stepped up to actually change it.

“The province needs to be a little more flexible in these situations.”

Mike Bernier

“Most people I talked to said I have no problem that I have to check in and register, but this was an archaic system where it had to be done all in paper,” he said. “One lady checked in in Chetwynd and continued driving to Dawson Creek and when she was looking for her voucher she was told she had to go back to Chetwynd because that’s where she registered.”

“The province needs to be a little more flexible in these situations,” added Bernier. “It’s about safety and supporting our citizens. It shouldn’t be about imaginary lines on a map, and when you cross them they say you shall not get any supports.”