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Prepping for catastrophe

Corridor-wide evacuation plan in the works

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If local officials needed any added reminder of the importance of having a wide-scale evacuation plan in place, they needed only look at the harrowing images splashed across TV screens last week as Hurricane Irma triggered the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history.

It's the kind of catastrophic event the governments of Whistler and Squamish are gearing up for as part of the development of the Sea to Sky Corridor Multimodal Evacuation Plan.

"The RMOW has an evacuation plan for our community and so does the District of Squamish, but this multimodal evacuation plan is meant for the entire corridor. So if something happened where both communities had to evacuate simultaneously, we obviously need a plan," explained Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

Now, officials have put the call out to emergency management consultants to formulate a plan that would focus specifically on "a mass exodus of the communities using existing roadway networks to the North and/or South."

With only one major road in and out of both communities, Highway 99, the ideal plan would gauge the capacity of various routes and transportation methods.

"The focus is on different (transportation) modes, so looking at both the highway as well as alternate routes out, as well as how we would utilize the forest service roads, rail, air, ferry, and the capacity of each," explained Alexis Kraig, emergency coordinator with the DOS.

Officials have taken lessons from two other Canadian communities recently hit by wildfire, Kraig added.

"It's very similar to what happened in Fort McMurray (in 2016), or if you see what happened in Williams Lake this summer: communities where you really have only one road as an option," she said. "Particularly in Williams Lake, which is a good example, because at times that road was shut down, so you have to think about how we would get our residents to safer places."

Both Whistler and Squamish completed their own evacuation plans last year, with the DOS carrying out a mass-evacuation exercise in October. Developing a plan for the Sea to Sky was simply the natural "evolution of emergency management in the corridor," said Ryan Wainwright, emergency program manager for the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), which is being consulted on the plan.

"This is something emergency managers throughout the corridor have been talking about for years. It really came to the forefront in 2015 when there was those two very large fires (outside of Whistler)."

Wilhelm-Morden spoke to the difficulty of coordinating an effective emergency response across various communities and partners. (The plan is also being developed in conjunction with the RCMP, the Ministry of Transportation, and other agencies.)

"There's the whole incidence of command, where that lies, who takes the lead on this. Then we've got issues like challenging geography," she said. "So it will be very challenging to come up with a corridor-wide plan."

The call for proposals closed on Sept. 12, with a final plan expected to come before Whistler council by Dec. 31. Unlike most other municipal contract bids, the RMOW is looking for the best possible plan, not the cheapest option.

"In this case, we're not looking to save money," Wilhelm-Morden said. "We're looking at getting a reliable, dependable and potentially creative plan that will work."

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