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Scared about a Squamish version of the Lytton fire?

Municipal emergency program co-ordinator reviews evacuation plans in the event of a disaster.
An evacuation centre in case of emergency.

Many in town have been wondering what might happen to Squamish should it face a major wildfire situation similar to that of Lytton, which has virtually been wiped off the map.

Fires engulfed Lytton, which broke national heat records multiple days in a row, burning roughly 90% of the town to the ground. Two people died in the disaster and others were injured.

It's news that's caused many people to revisit what measures the District of Squamish has with respect to evacuating the town in the face of a natural or human-caused disaster.

"It's just heartbreaking to see what's been going on over there [in Lytton]. But we are feeling fairly confident in [the] plans that we do have," said Megan Latimer, the municipality's emergency program co-ordinator.

In 2019, the District developed a Sea to Sky Multimodal Evacuation Plan, in collaboration with the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

"This really came about because we watched in 2017, 2018, all the major wildfires in B.C. and seeing back-to-back evacuations of places like Williams Lake, Ashcroft, Cache Creek, you know, communities that are not so far from Squamish and kind of similar sizes," Latimer said.

Latimer said that the plan shows it will require about 12 to 14 hours to completely evacuate Squamish.

"I think when people hear that number, they get really nervous — understandably," she said.

"For myself, it was actually reassuring to know what it is, because in cases where we're able to have advance notice that we might need to call an evacuation and order people out of town, we know that we need to be doing it early. And we need to be looking at all the possible triggers and signals, and listening to the different agencies like BC Wildfire [Service]...and really working with them to make sure they understand what our timeline is in terms of getting community members out."

The plan estimates that a disaster hitting Squamish on a peak summer weekend day, would trigger an evacuation of about 27,600 people. However, about 350 of them will not have a car to get them out of town.

Latimer said that to help those without access to a vehicle, the District will create muster points, usually at areas with big parking lots that will be accessible by bus, to shuttle people out.

The main method of getting people out of town will be the highway.

Depending on whether there is a fire coming from the north or south, traffic will likely be directed one way, away from the hazard.

At this point, it would be crucial to have tow trucks on hand to remove vehicles that become stuck, said Latimer. Fuel trucks should also be on hand to provide gas, as it's a common problem for many vehicles to run empty and get stranded on the road.

There would also be a phased approach to evacuation, Latimer said.

It's a practice commonly used when trying to get very large amounts of people through a bottleneck — in this case, the highway.

The idea is that people closest to the hazard — in this case, a wildfire — would be permitted to leave first. Then, the next closest would be permitted to leave, and so on, until the town is empty.

This is expected to alleviate overcrowding that would freeze traffic on the highway.

But in case the highway is completely blocked both ways, Latimer said there are alternate ways of getting people out.

The airport can fit something as large as a Hercules aircraft. That can be used for quickly airlifting out critical care patients from the hospital or anyone injured or vulnerable. It's also good for bringing in emergency responders.

For mass evacuations, BC Ferries can send a vessel to take people out from Darrell Bay, and it's also possible to get a large ship to shuttle people out from the terminal.

However, what happens if a fire strikes quickly and immediately, giving authorities very little time to set up evacuation protocols?

In this case, Latimer said that it's important for locals to take it upon themselves to have a plan of action.

A grab-bag filled with essentials and medication is a must, she said. 

Making arrangements for who gets a ride, where people can stay, and, if you have animals, where they can be moved to and taken care of are all elements of a good escape plan.

Familiarizing oneself with proper channels of information, like the BC Wildfire Service and local governments is also key, Latimer said.

People should understand the difference between an evacuation alert and an evacuation order, she added.

The former indicates people should be ready to leave at a moment's notice. The latter is an order to leave immediately.

All in all, the idea is to stay prepared for the worst.

"I don't think we're the tinder box that the Lytton area is," Latimer said.

That area is the hottest spot in Canada and broke heat records several days in a row.

However, that doesn't mean Squamish should let its guard down.

"With climate change in may be that we see a situation quite like Lytton," said Latimer. "We certainly could see a major wildfire like what we saw in the Upper Squamish Valley last year. So it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility."

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