Last week, horrifying images began to emerge out of Lytton, B.C.: a wildfire, likely human-caused, tore through the small downtown, burning 90 per cent of its structures — including homes, the local ambulance and RCMP detachments, at least one museum and many businesses.
For most of us, this loss is unthinkable. Our town centres are the lifeblood of our regions, anchoring us with core services, social connections and our sense of place and history. As we know from the pandemic, losing the critical functions of our towns through even a short-term shutdown can be harmful, which makes the more permanent impacts of a wildfire that much more frightening.
While Lytton provides an extreme example, the threat of wildfires for B.C. municipalities is only growing. The BC Wildfire Service’s risk assessments demonstrate high and extreme risks of wildfire adjacent to dozens of communities across the province. Climate change and historical patterns of development will make the threat of wildfires and other disasters like floods in B.C. municipalities more and more likely.
If we learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that we are simply unprepared for these types of disruption. Even though there were no evacuations or structural damage, the pandemic caught us all completely flat-footed.
No one was prepared for the scale of business shutdowns we witnessed. Local councils and economic leaders were mostly dependent on the federal government to inject billions of dollars into the economy. Instead of organized, centralized initiatives, businesses relied on scattered recommendations for pivoting to online sales and curbside pickups or shifting manufacturing from core products to hand sanitizer or personal protective equipment.
While most municipalities have emergency management plans detailing how to lead evacuations, provide shelter for displaced persons and set up communications with the public, no plans exist for protecting local businesses and non-governmental services during a disaster. Most municipalities can’t answer basic questions about where businesses would relocate in the event of structural damage, how small businesses would find their workforce after an evacuation or how non-profits would operate without buildings or utilities.
Economic resilience plans fill this gap by outlining who is responsible for responding to economic disruption and how they should manage the loss of critical services provided by small businesses and non-profits. These plans integrate stakeholders like unions, chambers of commerce, business associations, Community Futures offices, banks, workforce organizations and related non-profits into a collaborative network that works together to reduce disaster impacts on our downtowns and our economies.
From 2019 to 2020, SFU Community Economic Development partnered with Selkirk College and Community Futures to run a series of pilot projects in economic resilience planning with eight communities in the Kootenays. Ironically, this project was disrupted by COVID-19, but we were able to complete community engagement sessions and preliminary plans for communities that eventually supported them in their pandemic responses.
The pilot allowed municipalities to map out their assets and networks for economic disruption, while also identifying gaps and needs. Though case studies aren’t yet available from the pilot, we do know that, during the pandemic, communities like Creston and Trail were able to activate the networks they’d put into place, immediately working on initiatives to address vulnerabilities that had been identified during the planning process.
But the recently released 2021 BC Budget and Fiscal Plan allocates no money for community-based planning at all. Instead, the government’s strategy seems to revolve around funding infrastructure projects and tourism amenities. The same is true for the regional trusts, which are the primary private grant-making agencies for community development in B.C. There is no funding for, or discussion of, long-term economic resilience plans that will protect our communities from the impacts of future disruptions.
Every community in B.C. needs an economic resilience plan. Each community needs to have a system in place for responding to evacuation of local businesses, destruction of commercial districts, loss of workforce and more. Most importantly, each community needs to have the resources and mandate to get this work done. Senior levels of government and the regional trusts must encourage and support municipalities to do this planning before it is too late.
The pandemic was a trial run that demonstrated immense vulnerability in our systems — but it fell far short of the catastrophic impacts we’ve seen recently in Lytton, or during the Grand Forks flood in 2018. We need to take what COVID-19 taught us about economic disruption, develop resiliency plans and test those plans rigorously to ensure that we are prepared for any hazard that may present itself.
If we don’t, we risk much worse than just social distancing in line at the grocery store; we may not even have a grocery store left to buy from.