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Province of emergency

Rob Shaw: Days after ending BC’s longest-ever state of emergency, there are calls to declare another one.
Apithep Arunin /

BC is lurching from one emergency to another, as worsening wildfires pick up where lessening COVID-19 cases leave off. One crisis begins, while another ends.

The wildfire situation has grown extraordinarily concerning in recent weeks, with out-of-control blazes already burning down most of Lytton and killing at least three people. There were 200 fires burning across B.C. on Monday, as record-high heat waves continue to make conditions ripe for tragedy.

Mass evacuations have forced thousands to flee their homes, and the risk of catastrophe has already reached the doorstep of Kelowna and Kamloops (though thankfully neither city has been hit so far).

All this picked up just around the time B.C.’s COVID case counts started dropping, as the province transitioned into stage two relaxed restrictions June 15 and stage three on July 1.

The province is now running a seven-day average of only 35 new COVID cases, the lowest since August 2020. There are few deaths, lowering hospitalizations and a very healthy first-dose vaccination rate of 78 per cent and climbing.

It’s going so well, the government stopped regular media briefings and lifted its state of emergency July 1, after a record 16 months.

The peace and normalcy lasted just four days, however, before the BC Liberal Opposition implored the government to re-activate that state of emergency, this time due to the wildfires.

“We’ve seen how devastating and quickly these fires can move,” Mike Morris, the MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie said Monday.

“It’s vital that B.C. is ready before more fires spark. A provincial state of emergency provides certainty that resources will be available to those on the ground and in need. For the sake of all communities facing wildfires right now, John Horgan cannot delay this important call any longer.”

It’s not great to see states of emergency turned into political footballs like this, but the opposition likely has a point. The B.C. government should issue another declaration, even if it’s worried about public fatigue having just come through the longest such period in its history.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has also quite rightly pointed out states of emergencies are recommended by non-partisan civil servants in its emergency preparedness branch, and so far they have not felt it necessary.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered federal aid, the military is on standby if B.C. requests it, and the province has a healthy contingency fund set aside to pay for whatever people and resources are required to fight the fires. We’re all basically in a state of emergency already, whether it’s declared officially or not.

Meanwhile, the BC Centre for Disease Control issued another public warning Monday - this time not for COVID-19 but to prepare the public in the Lower Mainland and south coast for the high likelihood of smoke, smog, and poor air quality due to the wildfires.

That will likely lead to a repeat of 2018 when Metro Vancouver was left under a blanket of smoke that turned the sky orange, covered the streets in haze and left a post-apocalyptic feel to everyday life.

We’ve just returned to almost-normal from COVID. Maybe it was too good to last. Get ready for the next emergency, because it’s already here.

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.

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