On the firing line

Sep 18, 2003, vol. 28, no. 2
By Marianne Meadahl

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As the destructive wrath of the Okanagan mountain park forest fire descended on Kelowna on Aug.22, a crew housed in the provincial regional emergency operations centre in Kamloops worked around the clock in an effort to minimize the fire's destruction.

Peter Anderson was among them. The SFU associate communication professor, who specializes in emergency communication, had just spent six days at the centre assisting with response efforts to a number of other large fires in the Thompson-Okanagan region. The centre coordinates the provincial support to local authorities and works with the B.C. forest service and office of the fire commissioner on evacuation planning.

Just four days earlier, conditions had improved in the region and he was about to head for home when something changed his mind. “Things didn't feel right,” he says, recalling the ominous shift in weather conditions. Soon after, blazes jumped fireguards and headed for homes, destroying more than 230 in the Kelowna area alone.

“At times it felt surrealistic, as the conditions were so unusual and so spontaneous,” says Anderson, one of more than 30 people in the Kamloops centre who worked long into the night and next day.

Anderson stayed in Kamloops for three weeks as part of the advance planning team. He returned home to teach his senior undergraduate course, communication to mitigate disasters, then promptly returned to the centre as fires continued to rage.

Anderson has a longstanding relationship with the provincial emergency program (PEP). SFU hosts the PEP website through Anderson's telematics research lab. As the forest fires problem grew over a hot, dry summer, Anderson and his colleague, Steve Braham, along with a team from SFU's academic computing services and technical support operations, worked to ensure the site, which at its peak logged some 950,000 hits a day, stayed up and running. They also created a backup site and provided a satellite link between SFU and B.C. forest service operations in Vernon.

Originally, Anderson decided to make a quick trip to Kamloops to assess communication needs that arose during response to the McLure/Barriere fire. He soon became a key resource on several fronts for subsequent fires.

“One of my many jobs has been to determine what critical communications facilities might be at risk, and to help mitigate damage to them or plan for alternative communication,” says Anderson, who provided similar support during the Salmon Arm fire in 1998.

He also put together an electronic mapping team to build and disseminate maps to utilities, emergency operations centres, and others to assist in response and evacuation planning.

“The maps have allowed us to stay ahead of the fires and identify areas housing critical facilities so we can try to protect them,” says Anderson, noting the loss of some cellular sites and broadcast facilities. “These are lifelines that enable communication among key emergency agencies and the public, especially during evacuations. We need to ensure they can survive or be quickly restored.”

Anderson says a result of these efforts will be the evolution of a provincial critical infrastructures database, something federal and provincial governments have wanted to develop.

In addition, he says alternative communication systems, such as specially equipped emergency communications vehicles and a new internet phone currently being tested at SFU, could be used to enhance current systems. Anderson tested the internet phone at the provincial centre and the Kamloops community reception centre with positive results.

Anderson is also looking at how SFU can play a role in developing long-term risk reduction programs.

And while a new semester is under way, he expects to remain involved with his work on the fires. “There's a lot to be learned from this experience in terms of how we prepare for potential future disasters,” says Anderson, noting that the Kamloops team benefited from planning done in recent years.

“We're adding to that knowledge base. While we hope events like these never happen again, we're improving our ability to respond when they do.”

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