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RMOW prepared to deal with climate change

Fire, floods and earthquake seen as potential threats



As the effects of climate change become apparent and instances of extreme weather occurrences become more common, municipalities across the country are taking steps to protect themselves.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada recently launched a new software program known as the Municipal Risk Assessment Tool (MRAT).

The MRAT — currently being tested in Coquitlam, B.C., Hamilton, Ont., and Fredericton, N.B. as a pilot project — uses climate models and past weather data to predict which areas of a city could be most vulnerable to flooding.

But for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), risk assessment is nothing new.

"We've been looking at climate protection planning and monitoring since the late 1990s," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

"We were really kind of a leader in local government paying attention to those things."

The RMOW has been tracking greenhouse gas emissions in its municipal facilities since the year 2000.

"They're 35 per cent lower now than they were in 2008. So we've really been paying attention to this issue," Wilhelm-Morden said.

That reduction can be attributed in part to the RMOW's integrated energy, air quality and greenhouse gas management plan, implemented in 2004.

But even with reductions to GHG emissions, extreme weather occurrences have become more common.

Whether it's flooding in Calgary — or last month's snow storm — a Christmas ice storm in Ontario or a Category 5 tornado outside of Winnipeg, more and more municipalities are finding that they need to expect the unexpected.

"We have identified what kind of emergency hazards that we need to be prepared for and then we have an emergency management plan as a result," Wilhelm-Morden said.

The three biggest hazards facing the RMOW, she said, are fires, flooding and earthquakes.

"Now, not a lot we can do about earthquakes other than having seismic-designed buildings, which I think most of them are, but with flooding and with fire, (there's) a couple of things," she said.

To mitigate the damage of a widespread forest fire, a lot of the responsibility falls on homeowners. Using FireSmart techniques on your property can go a long way.

"So what you plant on your property, the type of siding you've got on your home, any garden debris that's on your property," can make a difference if there is a threat of a fire to your home, said Wilhelm-Morden. "We had quite a push about that in the spring."

In the case of a major flooding event, such as one caused by the release of the Fitzsimmons slump above the village, the RMOW took steps to protect Whistler Village in 2009 with the construction of the Fitzsimmons Creek Debris Barrier.

"That was designed to mitigate a one-in-500-year flooding event," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"There are (also) additional flood protection measures around the day-skier parking lots."

In the case of a widespread emergency situation, the RMOW would rely on its 2005 Emergency Plan. The plan can be viewed on the RMOW's website.

"As far as other emergencies and disasters are concerned, we encourage everybody to have a 72-hour supply at home of water and food, and first aid stuff and pet food," Wilhelm-Morden said. "Be prepared to be on your own for three days, is what we tell people."