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An unprecedented wildfire season

This year marked an unprecedented wildfire season for British Columbia. Learn what this meant for the B.C. health system and how teams mobilized to provide support.
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Photo: Firefighters gathering for a morning briefing last August in West Kelowna, B.C. during the McDougall Creek Wildfire.

​This year, a total of 2,126 fires burned across British Columbia, presenting unique challenges for each health authority. Swiftly moving from flood response to fire response, there was little time to spare as Health Emergency Management BC (HEMBC) teams across the province mobilized to provide support as needed. The wildfire season ramped up early in April and continued with intensity through to September, with some fires still burning across the province. At the highest point of the season, a total of 35,000 British Columbians were on evacuation order (meaning residents are at risk and must leave the area immediately), and 30,000 were on evacuation alert (meaning residents should be ready to leave on short notice).

Provincial issue, provincial response

HEMBC’s PHSA team was responsible for ensuring the continuity of critical health care services and supplies across the province. The team facilitated strategic deliveries and stockpiles for health facilities and warehouses that were at risk of the wildfires. In addition, the team liaised with regional HEMBC teams to share situational awareness and support operations throughout PHSA sites.

Since the wildfires affected every health authority, responding as a coordinated health system was necessary. Throughout the summer, HEMBC’s Provincial Coordination team deployed HEMBC staff to affected regions, reported daily on health impacts, and aligned teams across jurisdictions, including coordination between health authorities and between provincial and territorial governments. During an emergency event that impacted multiple health authorities and partners, HEMBC provincial teams were integral for a coordinated and well-resourced response. 

“This year was my first time supporting a wildfire response,” says Alex Sokolowski, health emergency management specialist, HEMBC Provincial Coordination. “It’s not everyday you see your work covered on the front page of the newspaper. The situation was changing so quickly, so the team had to move fast. At times, this made conditions on the ground feel responsive to the work I was doing: I could see real-time feedback of how the situation was improving or worsening and this kept me motivated.”

“My colleagues set an exemplary tone of dedication, professionalism and service and this showed me how to keep my composure and lead with compassion during complex emergency responses. I’m grateful to be in a position where I can see first-hand how my work on system-level challenges provides site-level solutions.”

Reflections from HEMBC staff

In Northern Health, the wildfire season started earlier than normal. With almost 900 fires burning across the health authority, the 2023 wildfire season was easily one of the worst to date. During the emergency response, Heather Crozier, health emergency management specialist, HEMBC Northern Health, and her team’s role was to act as the source of truth for the leaders in health care.

“We ensure that we have factual, current, and relevant information to provide to the leaders, which assists them in making decisions for their sites and communities,” she says. “We liaise with various agencies such as Emergency Management and Climate Readiness (EMCR), First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), and the Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centre (PREOC). By building these relationships, we can ensure that Northern Health sites are supported in a meaningful way.”


Photo: Heather with her HEMBC c​olleagues during a deployment in Kelowna this summer.

“Our team was proactive and ready at a moment's notice to jump in wherever needed.  It was fantastic to see everyone come together flawlessly to ensure the sites were prepared,” says Heather. In addition to providing support in the North, Heather and team also assisted Interior Health in their emergency response to the wildfires in the Okanagan.

Heather felt grateful for the opportunity to travel to other areas, work with old friends, connect with folks she had only met virtually and build new relationships. She adds: “through this experience I have formed a greater understanding of the unique needs of our sites in the North, and how to support them better moving forward.”

Stats at a glance


Interior Health saw the most fires affecting populated areas this year. The region experienced record breaking heat and dry atmospheric conditions which led to extreme fire behaviour in mid-August. HEMBC responded as a provincial program and suspended regular operations elsewhere to assist evacuation and efforts to ensure the continuity of health care services in the Interior. This included multiple HEMBC staff deployments to assist where needed.

Pia Garbutt, program support, HEMBC Interior Health, helped organize and set up the emergency operations centre (EOC) that was activated to respond to the wildfires in this region. She organized staff rotations and schedules, ensured e-mailboxes were activated and accessible, established and maintained a team site to organize important documents, and ensured the meeting management team was trained and ready to succeed in their roles. While much of HEMBC’s work happens behind-the-scenes, they are the glue that holds the health care system together in times like these.

“I live in Kelowna, so I could see the fires firsthand. It was the scariest thing,” says Pia. “One of my favourite things about this work is supporting an EOC. It’s amazing to see how everyone comes together. You could be having 16-17 hour days. It’s a lot and we’re moving fast but working together as a team is so rewarding.”

HEMBC’s Provincial Psychosocial Services (PPS) program was also deployed to provide emotional support to people in the Interior, as well as across the province. Giles Ringer, crisis intervention specialist with PPS’ Mobile Response Team, supported victims impacted by the McDougall Creek wildfire in West Kelowna.

“This wildfire season was different for me in that the McDougall Creek wildfire expanded into Kelowna, where I live. I had to think about what I needed to do to be prepared in case of evacuation, and make sure my own family was safe, as well as support evacuees.” Giles was deployed for a little over a month this year, helping out in Osoyoos as well as Kelowna.

“Something I learned is that even though I wanted to support people right away, I needed to take care of myself first. This is what we tell people all the time. Take care of your own physical and mental health so you have the ability to support others.”

Stats at a glance


“The wildfire situation on Vancouver Island this year was really a story of one big hit, and many close calls,” says Ryan Kuhn, director, HEMBC Island Health. The Cameron Bluffs wildfire near Port Alberni resulted in the closure of Highway 4, which connects people to most of the Island’s west coast communities. 

“With such a critical transportation corridor closed, the complexity of coordinating the movement of patients, staff and supplies was significant,” says Ryan. “HEMBC stood up an EOC to coordinate the complex logistical and emergency transport contingencies for all health services, including providing support to West Coast General and Tofino Hospital. We also held two cancer care clinics in Port Alberni to reduce the burden on patients who would otherwise travel to larger centres.”


Photo: An Island Health logistics staff member who drove the Mosaic forestry road almost daily to deliver supplies as part of the response to the Cameron Bluffs wildfire.

The Cameron Bluffs wildfire tested Island Health’s response processes and heightened its readiness for future events.  Ryan adds: “the new reality is that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and magnitude due to climate change, and as such, we need to be vigilant in our emergency response preparation as an organization. It’s a matter of when, not if.”

Stats at a glance


‎The HEMBC Lower Mainland teams were also called on for support this year. Maddy Laberge, manager, HEMBC Lower Mainland, and her team helped receive evacuees into the Lower Mainland from the Northwest Territories and also the Interior Health region.

“On August 15, all of my regular work came to a pause so we could focus on the response. We spent the next three weeks supporting the Northwest Territories and Interior Health evacuations. Three months later, we’re still capturing learnings from debriefs and after-action reviews,” says Maddy. 

“It was intense, challenging, exhilarating, and exhausting,” she recalls. “The overlapping evacuation was a challenge and with such a small team, we were burning the candle at both ends and the middle to keep on-top of all the EOCs, meetings, and important paperwork.”
Reflecting back, Maddy feels grateful to work alongside a competent, dedicated, and resilient team in times of crisis. 

“These long hours come at a cost both physically and personally, and yet everyone involved always rises to the occasion going far above and beyond. It’s mind blowing how many teams come together to make responses like this happen, and at the heart of it all is the driving principle of patient-centered care. I could not be more proud of what we accomplished.”

Stats at a glance


Get prepared for an emergency

By being prepared, we can respond more effectively to emergency events to keep patients safe and ensure the continuity of health services. View a series of emergency preparedness videos developed by HEMBC, so you know what to do in the event of an emergency.

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