November 06, 2017

Professor Peter Anderson shares emergency communications expertise during B.C.’s worst wildfire season

By Alisha Pillay

As we brace for winter, Peter Anderson already has next summer in mind. This past summer season, the SFU communication professor worked alongside the B.C. provincial government as an emergency communications expert during B.C.’s worst wildfire season in a decade. Logging more than 400 hours over six weeks, the experience was intense and often times emotional.

And with the wild and changing weather, there may well be more come.

Based at the Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centres (PREOC) in Prince George and Kamloops, Anderson assessed risk to the major communication systems needed to support response and evacuations in Cache Creek, Ashcroft, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake and Anahim Lake.

Anderson and colleague Stephen Braham took SFU’s advanced emergency communications truck up to the Kamloops PREOC. The vehicle is equipped to support an entire emergency operations centre if required. While the truck was not deployed it remained on standby throughout the summer.

As part of his work, Anderson prepared “grab-and-go” kits which were deployed for back-up communication. The kits included satellite phones and internet systems, as well as GPS tracking and short messaging systems.

The SFU advanced emergency communications truck stationed at the Kamloops PREOC.

So, what made this B.C.’s worst wildfire season? Anderson explains, “along with evacuations in bigger communities like Williams Lake and Cache Creek, we also had to assist thousands of people in very remote areas which added a lot more complexity. It was a real challenge to find roads that were safe enough for people to travel on. Many had to be airlifted out by helicopter.” Nearly 40, 000 people were evacuated from their homes this summer.

“It’s definitely the costliest fire season we’ve had. And it’s not over. The evacuation orders have been lifted but the big fires - like the Elephant Hill fire – will still have to be monitored throughout the winter. The fires go all the way down to the root systems.”

Earlier this year, Anderson was awarded the Chris Dagg Award for International Impact for his work in emergency communications. He has consulted on nearly every major emergency in B.C. since 1987. Anderson is currently on leave recovering from a recent knee surgery. He will be returning to SFU in the spring to teach CMNS 356: Communication to Mitigate Disasters – a course where students can also learn to assess risk within their own communities.