A flooded section of the eastbound lanes of Highway 1 bewteen Cole Road and No. 3 Road looking west on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)

A flooded section of the eastbound lanes of Highway 1 bewteen Cole Road and No. 3 Road looking west on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)

Indigenous-led action plan focused on flood strategy for entire Lower Mainland

Planning must take increasing regularity of climate change disasters into account, says tribal chief

As the flurry of disaster response starts to settle down in First Nations communities, focus is on a regional action plan to tackle flood management for the entire Lower Mainland.

“We’re coming out of a situation where so much rain inundated the valley and mountains around us, that the rivers and small creeks grew and flooded our communities like they never had before,” said Tyrone McNeil, president and tribal chief of Stólō Tribal Council.

McNeil is also chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat (EPS), with reps from 31 Indigenous communities, the goal is hammering out a Coast-Salish led flood management strategy for the entire region, from Yale to Tsawwassen to Squamish.

Work on the regional action plan for flooding will resume in January 2022.

“We have obtained the chiefs’ endorsement for the direction of the action plan,” McNeil said.

Part of it will be taking the meta view, conducting a critical review of B.C.’s emergency management response to catastrophic flooding events as well as landslides, and wildfires.

“We need to look at the province’s forest management practices,” McNeil said. “Clearcutting, as it stands, needs to stop. When replanting trees, there needs to be diverse species to keep wildfire in check.”

On the gravel front, with an estimated one million cubic metres of new aggregate coming into the Fraser every year, “we can’t just build the dikes higher, we have to stop and get the gravel out,” he said.

Planning has to start taking into account the increased regularity of climate events. Those that were in the past one-in-200 year events, are happening more frequently like once every 10 or 20 years.

“Out of the last five years we’ve seen three of the worst wildfire seasons B.C. has ever seen.”

Once leadership in the communities circles back to emergency planning, McNeil, they’ll be looking to incorporate some international ideas from the four pillars of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. It posits that better emergency response planning can lead to substantially fewer disaster risks and losses, mortalities, and impacts on economic, physical, social and environmental realms.

The Sendai agreement emphasizes a holistic approach, from understanding disaster risk, to strengthening disaster-risk governance, and investing in emergency preparedness and disaster-risk reduction. It’s preparing in a way that allows for the “build back better” principle, better response, rehabilitation, and resilience.

That is what’s needed in regional planning, McNeil said.

“The current approach to emergency management in B.C. and Canada is do little as you can, and then try to respond,” the Sto:lo leader said. “But with the pillars of Sendai it gets you thinking more proactively.”

The plan will review out-of-control wildfire seasons in the Interior, flooding and slides, as major rivers and creeks flooded in Fraser River watersheds and Interior, and the marine side, with forecasts of a one-metre sea level rise by 2100, and effects on king tides and tsunamis, McNeil said.

“One of the last things is the series of atmospheric rivers we have seen. It caught B.C. off guard again and demonstrated our lack of preparation. So I can’t imagine what the response might be if South Coast suffered a major earthquake.

“So to that end, earthquakes, sea level rises, floods, and wildfires, will all be covered in our regional action plan,” McNeil said.

Getting consensus around the major highways is another priority concern.

“We need to prioritize all the major infrastructure. Let’s all agree that Highways 1, 7, and 99, should be built to be safe from flooding, including CP, CN Rail, BC Hydro, Fortis BC, and Telus infrastructure.”

In terms of any flood mitigation, protecting highways can’t be optional.

“I hope this is a wakeup call so that everyone in the Lower Mainland can come together and prioritize the protection of major infrastructure as well.”

RELATED: Impacts from flooding varied across Indigenous communities

RELATED: Highway 1 now open Abbotsford to Hope

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Tyrone McNeil, tribal chief of Sto:lo Tribal Council, and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat. (Facebook/Seabird Island screenshot)

Tyrone McNeil, tribal chief of Sto:lo Tribal Council, and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat. (Facebook/Seabird Island screenshot)