British Columbia's emergency co-ordination agency is working to expand its use of a public alert system for large-scale and potentially fatal disasters, as hundreds more residents have been forced from their homes because of wildfires.
Alert Ready is a Canada-wide system that allows government officials to issue public safety alerts through major television and radio broadcasters, as well as compatible wireless devices.
Pader Brach, executive director of regional operations with Emergency Management BC, said the system is being looked at for a variety of hazards, although he could not say if it would be in place for this wildfire season.
"We know that minutes count and we're certainly committed to making the Alert Ready system a priority," Brach told a news conference.
The system is already in use for tsunami threats and Amber Alerts, however it was not used during the "heat dome" in June in which the BC Coroners Service has said the typical death rate tripled.
Brach said Alert Ready would complement existing systems for issuing evacuation orders and other emergency information, not replace them.
"We want to make sure that we get it right."
About 4,300 properties were under evacuation orders Thursday due to wildfires scorching British Columbia's south, which is further challenged with drought conditions and water shortages. Nearly 18,000 additional properties are under alert, meaning residents are warned to prepare to leave at a moment's notice.
Ian Meier, executive director with the BC Wildfire Service, said strong winds fanned the flames of several wildfires Thursday, causing them to grow and prompting additional evacuations.
Conditions are extremely dry in the southern half of the province and there is "no relief in sight," he said.
There was better news in northern B.C., where he said cooler temperatures and precipitation allowed officials to reallocate some resources further south.
Help was also on the way for the 3,193 personnel currently on the fire lines, with 112 personnel due from Quebec on Friday, 100 Mexican firefighters expected to arrive on the weekend, and an unspecified number of military personnel already staging in the Okanagan.
Among the new areas under evacuation orders was the community of Spences Bridge, now threatened by the same wildfire that three weeks ago destroyed the village of Lytton to its south in a matter of minutes.
Despite a provincial state of emergency effective Wednesday that intended to free up accommodations for evacuees, residents of 169 properties were directed more than 200 kilometres away to Chilliwack if they couldn't find a place to stay with friends or family nearby.
Brach said officials recognize that the distance some evacuees are being asked to travel is longer than typical.
"We ask that communities do everything they can to support evacuees with the knowledge that right now, based on the number of fires in B.C., we're doing the best we can to find accommodations for evacuees," he said.
An evacuation order was also expanded Thursday for the Nk'Mip wildfire in the south Okanagan that has charred more than 20 square kilometres around Osoyoos.
Aggravating the fire situation are drought and water shortages affecting the southern half of the province, thanks to little or no rainfall over the past five weeks and none in the forecast. However, the water scarcity is not yet compromising firefighting efforts, Meier said.
"We are able to move water effectively with either pumping systems or our aviation resources, so we're not seeing an impact on the firefighting yet."
Freshwater fishing is closed in many areas due to the added stress to fish from low flows and high water temperatures, while the provincial government also urged residents to conserve water and observe local restrictions.
People and ecosystems are likely to be affected in several areas that are already under Drought Level 4 restrictions, which are the second-most severe on B.C.'s scale of five, the province said in a news release.
The areas covered include the Salmon, Coldwater and Nicola rivers in the Thompson-Okanagan; the Kettle River, Lower Columbia Basin and West Kootenay Basin; as well as the Eastern Vancouver Island Basin and Gulf Islands.
If conservation goals aren't met and drought conditions worsen, temporary protection orders under the Water Sustainability Act may be issued to water licensees to avoid significant or irreversible harm to aquatic ecosystems, it said.
"Provincial staff are actively monitoring the situation and working to balance water uses with environmental flow needs."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press