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Update on B.C. Fire Response: a Q&A with FirstOnSite

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Originally published August 21, 2017
Matthew Bradford, Editor – MediaEdge

Since April 1, British Columbia has been in the grips of one of its worst wildfire seasons in over 60 years. Over 900 fires have displaced over 19,000 residents, destroyed countless hectares of land, and caused untold millions of dollars in damages.

Restoring B.C.’s affected communities is a task that’s fallen to many agencies, first responders, and firms. That includes FirstOnSite Restoration, which is no stranger to disaster relief, having played a key role in restoring Alberta’s Wood Buffalo region after the historic Horse River (Fort McMurray) Fire. We caught up with FirstOnSite’s senior project manager Jim Mandeville for an update on B.C.’s own recovery efforts.

What’s your role right now in B.C.?

We’re in that primary stage where we’re helping to maintain air quality in facilities being used by first responders and critical businesses. We have about 500 air purification units installed in facilities throughout southern B.C. and we’re doing cleanup work inside the evacuated areas of 100 Mile House and Williams Lake.

What’s the plan moving forward?

It’s really about restoring the community. Before the residents are allowed back in, we have to make sure they have safe homes and working services. So right now we’re working with upwards of 50 different government agencies and first responders to keep them healthy and safe while they work towards those goals. Then, as the situation progresses, we’ll begin working with our partners in the critical business community – the banks, gas stations, and grocery stores – because all of that infrastructure needs to be back up and running before people can be let back in.

The final step will be to facilitate residents returning to their homes. We’ll be working our insurance partners and property management partners to restore private residents and non-critical businesses.

Ultimately, our role here will continue to increase – especially as they open up previously evacuated areas. It’s possible this thing can keep going into early September, which would leave us with work for months after that.

From your experience, what considerations need to be made during that final step?

The safety of an environment is a big one. For years, people would just walk back into their buildings after an event like this, wipe their finger on the table, get a bit of black stuff on their fingers, and say, ‘Hey, no big deal’. Except it is; that black stuff could be carcinogenic so you really need to consider how well that office, store, or home has been cleaned. It’s a tough conversation to have because the choice between cleaning and not cleaning could be thousands of dollars depending on your situation.

The other thing people sometimes forget is the liability aspect. If you make the decision not to clean and your tenant – or one of your employees – comes back years from now with lung cancer, your decision not to clean might be in question.

How do you coordinate what you do with all these different agencies and stakeholders?

Very carefully. We’ve had a lot of experience operating in an incident command structure and working with regional emergency operations people, so we’ve become pretty accustomed to their systems and how they all fit together. Once you understand that system, you just have to figure out who’s in charge (which can vary agency to agency and municipality to municipality) and insert yourself as a resource into that system.

What challenges are you facing?

Our two furthest jobs are 1200 km apart, so I have people, equipment, and resources spread out all through the southern interior. Being able to coordinate all that in an area with no cell phone service is tremendously challenging, so we’re going with non-traditional means like payphones, satellite phones, pre-established arrival times.

It’s certainly something I haven’t had to deal with since the beginning of my career.

As well, we’re used to being able to just call a crew or project manager when we need one, but you can’t do that here. And because of the lack of lodging, many of our crew members are driving hours just to get to a job.

How do your experiences in B.C. compare to Fort McMurray in Alberta?

The fire in Fort McMurray was unique in that it took place in such a large urban and suburban area, and areas were completely evacuated. It was something I have not seen in Canada and hopefully won’t ever see again. Still, in Fort McMurray, we had a beginning and an end: the fire came, the fire went, we cleaned up, everyone moved back, and it was over.

So far in B.C., it is an ever changing, wide-spread event where poor air quality is affecting much of the province (and beyond), and areas are being evacuated multiple times.

This is leading to an increasingly complex response on our part and some difficult choices for our partners. Decisions which are normally simple – like when to clean the HVAC system – are now based on wind direction and how many times this year we will be doing it. All of these issues really speak to the need for organizations and business to have a qualified restoration partner as a part of their arsenal in the future with our ever-evolving climate situation.

Jim Mandeville is a senior project manager with FirstOnSite Restoration, a leading Canadian disaster restoration company providing remediation, restoration, and reconstruction services nationwide, as well as for the US large loss and commercial market.

Read the article on the REMI website

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