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B.C. wildfires: Travel ban concerns raised, group says more data needed

A travel ban issued during the height of B.C.’s wildfire season last year has one Okanagan business organization worried that another could suddenly be implemented this year.

On Thursday, the Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce said it has written the province seeking assurances that “more effective protocols and accountabilities will be put into place before an emergency measure like a travel ban is ordered.”

The letter to B.C.’s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, Bowinn Ma, said the four-day ban, Aug. 19-22, was at the height of the Okanagan’s tourist season, resulting in millions of lost economic dollars.

“When Minister Ma ordered the travel ban last August, the intent was to open up hotel space for those evacuating West Kelowna’s McDougall Creek Wildfire,” said chamber executive director Michael Magnusson.

“If anyone from her ministry had first taken the small step of contacting our municipal government, they would have learned that spaces already available for evacuees were all but empty and should have made them question if ordering such a drastic measure in Penticton and throughout the South Okanagan was necessary.”

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One of the ban’s casualties was Penticton’s annual Ironman Triathlon, an event that sees thousands gather in the South Okanagan to test their fitness.

“The chamber wants to ensure that the provincial government has developed a much more comprehensive process before a measure as serious and economically devastating as a travel ban can be ordered,” said chamber president Nicole Clark.

The chamber is proposing that government analyze real-time information that’s provided by evacuation centres and the province’s evacuee registration site.

“Data should also be gathered from surrounding local governments, along with hotels/motels to measure the current number of available accommodations, and to use public spaces first,” reads the letter, which added that hindsight is 20-20.

It also said the chamber is disappointed that “Minister Ma has never answered questions posed by the tourism industry as to how the ban was ordered in the first place, nor has there been discussions around providing compensation for the financial losses incurred by local operators as a result of the ban.”

Global News has reached out to the ministry for comment.

“Setting up these kinds of information gathering and analytical tools before we’re into another wildfire season,” said Magnusson, “will allow the government to more accurately assess what emergency measures are actually needed.”

With snowpacks currently below normal, fears are rising that B.C. could see another extreme wildfire season, and possibly another travel ban.

“With wildfires becoming an annual occurrence, we want to ensure that decisions are made quickly, and also accurately,” said Clark.

“If last year demonstrated anything, it was that a little more information could have prevented a lot of hardship for Penticton and the South Okanagan.”

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