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Minister defends fire-related travel ban that cost Okanagan communities millions

Bowinn Ma is defending her ministry’s decision to issue a regional travel ban last August due to the McDougall Creek wildfire that erupted in West Kelowna, B.C.

“I want to emphasize that decisions around states of emergencies and travel orders are not made lightly,” said the Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

“The conditions had rapidly escalated and the projections grew to more than 28,000 people on evacuation order and 36,000 more people on evacuation alert who could have needed to evacuate at any moment.

“In addition, I was hearing at the time from senior executives of key response partners that access to accommodations were hampering their ability to import critical response personnel, firefighters, health-care workers and more to the places where they were desperately needed,” Ma said.

“And this is what led to the declaration of a provincial state of emergency and the subsequent order that it enabled.”

Ma made the comments after receiving a letter from the Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of Commerce that stated  it was seeking assurances that “more effective protocols and accountabilities will be put into place before an emergency measure like a travel ban is ordered.”

“The travel ban essentially emptied out all of our hotel rooms,” said chamber executive director Michael Magnusson.

Penticton is about 60 km south of West Kelowna.

The hotel rooms  in Penticton and south of that were intended to be used by evacuees, but ended up sitting empty because evacuees from West Kelowna, never showed up.

“Nobody at city hall was contacted,” Magnusson said. “We did have beds available for evacuees already in our public facilities, and if a phone call would have been made, they would have been notified that they were empty. So to now vacate hotel spaces, in addition to these beds that we already had in our in our schools and at the convention centre was really perplexing.”

Ma said that her ministry did contact municipal governments and local emergency operations centres before issuing the order.

“While we had proactively established group lodging options with communities and partners as part of our preparedness efforts, the historic number of people that were set to be evacuated in one area at once, with many more on evacuation alert,  had the potential to significantly overwhelm available supply,” Ma said.

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The travel ban was issued on Aug. 19 and was lifted four days later but Magnusson said the damage had been done.

“Everybody had already left and cancelled well beyond Aug. 23, which is when the ban was lifted so we had a lot of our tourism operators or hotels or wineries having to layoff staff early,” Magnusson said.

“The middle of August is the height of our tourism season and to not have revenues coming in because we’ve lost all of our tourists was devastating.”

The travel ban also forced the cancellation of major event — the Ironman triathlon, which was a roughly $15-million economic hit.

The chamber is calling for better protocols to be put in place by the ministry to avoid a repeat situation before the next wildfire season.

“What we want to see is a balanced response rather than an over-the-top response and then scaling back because the devastation that follows may not be physical, but it’s absolutely economical,” Magnusson said.

“They can use real-time data to make the most effective and appropriate order necessary.”

Magnusson added that better data could help with better decision making.

“If one of your questions to evacuees was, ‘In which city do you work?’ and the majority of them say, ‘I work in Kelowna,’ then you really have to look at what is the possibility of people going all the way to Penticton to drive to work five days a week through the fire zone to get to work, ” Magnusson said.

“They will likely stay in Kelowna or north of that, and that’s where we want to see more data-gathering and analysis.”

While he gives credit to all those dealing with the emergency situation, BC United MLA for the area, Dan Ashton, said better communication is needed when issuing travel bans.

‘They did it wrong and I hope this is a good learning experience,” Ashton said. “You know, I happen to know an individual  lost an awful lot of money during that week because all of a sudden his regular customers were asked to leave…the hotel sat empty because nobody came down here.”

The chamber is also asking the ministry for compensation for businesses financially impacted by travel bans.

“Moving forward, because we had asked for compensation last year, obviously, there was no announcement. We don’t expect anything to be forthcoming in that regard but moving forward, we absolutely want to see that,” Magnusson said.

“We think that more thought and effort will be put into making these decisions if there is a financial penalty attached to it.”

While Ma didn’t address compensation for individual businesses, she did say there are grants available for organizers of cancelled events.

“The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, they are providing one-time grants to eligible event organizers that have faced reduced revenue due to event cancellations caused by the 2023 wildfire season,” Ma said.

“I encourage those businesses to reach out to the ministry.”

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