Princeton announces new emergency response facilities in the face of growing natural disasters

Recognizing a tough future

Casey Richardson

The Town of Princeton unveiled projects on Wednesday that will aid emergency services within the community, acknowledging that the upgrades are built to help face the consequences of climate change.

The Similkameen has been working on recovering from the floods of November 2021, when many areas in southern B.C. were hit hard by the atmospheric river that ruined homes and damaged local infrastructure.

Bowinn Ma, B.C. minister of emergency management and climate readiness and Roly Russell, MLA for Boundary-Similkameen, were present on Wednesday for the announcement of the future site of the town's second firehall, emergency operations centre and fire training center in the industrial park.

Partial funding for the project was provided by the province's Growing Communities Fund grants, which allocated $1.9 million to the town.

According to the province, the fund "helps local governments prioritize local infrastructure and amenities projects, including supporting affordable housing, upgrading water management facilities and building recreation centres."

Local governments are responsible for determining how the grants will be allocated for the needs of their communities.

Mayor Spencer Coyne said that development will allow for all of the key emergency infrastructure to be set up as an operational control area.

"This is something that's been on our plan and we've been talking about it for four years, trying to figure out how we're going to come up with funding," he added.

"By teaming everybody up in the same location, it gives us a better coordination ability, which is always something that you always hear in every after-action review is better communications."

Currently, the town's emergency services are based downtown and Coyne said they would be at risk if a worst-case scenario flood was to hit again.

"If we're all in the same place and we're all working together in a purpose-built facility when we have these types of events then we will be able to get the information to the people and the players the best and quick as we can, which is just key when you're talking minutes that are life or death in some cases," he added.

Russell said that getting these funds out to communities is always good news, especially when the municipality has a clear goal for them.

"The leadership in Princeton, whether that's on the first responder side of things, whether that's the municipal government side of things, clearly has stepped up over the last couple of years, and really delivered on a lot of things for the community. So it's exciting with a project like this, to be able to provide what the community needs and move so quickly."

There also becomes a clear tie-in between setting up centres like this, with climate change and the increase of natural disasters in the province.

"We look at the increased frequency and intensity of these emergency disaster events around the province. And I don't think anybody wouldn't have noticed how dramatic that has been of late," Russell said.

"There's a whole lot behind that in terms of how we navigate that for the province, whether that's on the emergency management side of things, and the work that is happening right now to really rewrite all of our legislation around how we navigate disasters to move beyond just responding to making sure our recovery programs work well."

Minister Ma added that's why her ministry was expanded to include the realities of climate change.

"The extreme weather events that we have been seeing over the last few years, wildfires, droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme cold ice storms, they are unfortunately going to be occurring more frequently, with greater intensity, longer duration, and the impacts to communities in British Columbia are very, very real," she said.

The growing frequency of natural disasters is an issue that hasn't left Coyne's mind since the floods.

"Everything that we thought we understood, has to shift and that's just an unfortunate reality of today. The world we lived in before the atmospheric river is not the world we live in now," he said.

"The fire hall and the EOC and I think we need to stress that is us understanding and recognizing that the future is not going to be better."

The day also included the official announcement of the soon-to-be-opened temporary homes for displaced seniors.

With a zero per cent vacancy rate in Princeton, evacuees have been placed in Kelowna, throughout the Okanagan Valley, and all the way down to Osoyoos after the floods.

"We were using things like the really short-term accommodation, and hotels, and so on and so forth, right out of the gate," Russell said. "In order to have housing here, we need to get servicing here. So the community has to navigate that process with support from the government for funding.'

While Russell wouldn't pinpoint whether he was happy with the timeline of delivering the housing, he said he was happy that they've been able to deliver this project for the residents.

"We've been really working hard to figure out how do we make sure that they have a home back in the community as quickly as possible and this is a part of that to kind of medium-term interim housing opportunity. So I'm thrilled it's here."

Coyne said that while it could have happened sooner, the last few years have made everything challenging.

"Hopefully, we can make these transitions smoother, maybe we can make them faster. I've had a talk at the federal level, I've had to talk to the provincial level, we need a strategy around this."

Coyne continues to call out the federal government for their lack of help.

"Sure, the minister came out a couple of weeks ago. But that's a start, that's not a solution," he said, referencing Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair's visit at the end of February.

"The federal government really needs to have, in my opinion, strategic locations where they have units sitting, whether they're rented out for other things, or whatever is another question. But we need to have some sort of redundancy in place where the federal government comes in and helps us with these. And we can't just keep putting it on local government and the provinces to deal with, really deal with climate change emergencies."

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