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B.C. to review flood forecasting centre after hiring hiatus

The provincial government's River Forecast Centre has been understaffed for over a decade, according to internal reports
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This five-person team at the River Forecast Centre needs much more help, says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a report released Dec. 1 2021.

The B.C. ministry in charge of flood warnings says it will be reviewing staffing levels at the province’s River Forecast Centre (RFC) after devastating floods hit the Fraser Valley and southwest Interior last month.

The think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) says the B.C. government has ignored warnings to properly equip and staff the centre, which is responsible for predicting flood and drought conditions.

Warnings about a series of heavy storms, dubbed an atmospheric river, came five days after a similar agency in Washington State sounded the alarm.

“The B.C. government was clearly warned over a decade ago that staffing levels at its River Forecast Centre were far below those at similar operations in Oregon and Alberta and that more than a doubling of employees was needed to provide effective flood-risk assessment and early notice to communities in harm’s way,” says CCPA researcher Ben Parfitt in a new report.

Staffing at the RFC needs to be bumped up "immediately," says Parfitt.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development oversees the centre, which works with information provided by the Meteorological Service of Canada. It reports concerns to Emergency Management BC (EMBC), which in turn prepares for a disaster response.

The ministry told Glacier Media the centre is “fully staffed and has been able to provide timely and accurate forecasts in all cases through the recent weather events.”

Nevertheless, “after-action reviews are standard in any emergency response, and one will be conducted once the response has concluded.”

But Parfitt asserts staffing levels haven’t changed since a 2010 report was conducted on the centre.

Jim Mattison, a former senior-ranking member of the B.C. Ministry of Environment, warned the centre was understaffed in 2010.

“The Mattison report noted that the RFC’s staffing needed to rise from 5.5 employees to a minimum of 12 if the agency was to provide effective critical warnings to vulnerable communities threatened by floods,” states Parfitt.

In January 2021, the BC Public Service produced a promotional video for the centre, whose “service-oriented team of five scientists” was nominated for a Premier’s Award for “organizational excellence.”

Parfitt claims the under-resourced centre was not timely in its warnings to British Columbians.

“The late issuance of warnings by the RFC in the days and hours leading up to the horrendous flooding that has devastated Abbotsford, Merritt, Princeton and First Nations communities in recent weeks is coming under increasing scrutiny,” he says.

The centre’s first advisory came at noon on Saturday, Nov.13, five days after the first general warning was issued by Washington State officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The first flood warning mentioning the now-heavily damaged Coquihalla Highway was at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 14; the first flood warning for the Similkameen River near Princeton came at 5 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 15. And then, six and a half hours later, a flood warning came for the Nicola, a high consequence river near Merritt. Both towns flooded by Tuesday, Nov. 16.

Parfitt cites the Globe and Mail newspaper, which Aimée Harper, a senior public affairs officer for Emergency Management BC, stating that no information before EMBC led it to believe that anything out of the ordinary was in the works.

Parfitt questions the ability of the centre to provide good data with such low staffing levels.

For example, on Nov. 13, Environment and Climate Change Canada issued a warning about the incoming atmospheric river but “despite this warning, the RFC’s models apparently showed that river levels would be only in the range of one-in-five-year events. In other words, nothing of consequence,” notes Parfitt, whose report quotes former centre staff member Allan Chapman.

“All of this,” Chapman says in Parfitt’s report, “cries out for ‘an external audit or investigation with external reviewers not tied to the B.C. government” to examine the information before key provincial agencies in the days leading up to the heavy rains and the actions taken by various professional staff during the unfolding disaster.

“And a particular focus of that investigation should be the models being used by the RFC to gauge flood risk, models that grossly underestimated the severity of what was coming.”

Compounding problems, in Parfitt’s view, is poor communication from the government.

“EMBC declined to answer questions filed on Nov. 19 about information it may have received from the RFC and whether the RFC forewarned it on one or more occasions about what lay ahead. It also would not answer questions about when it may have set up its first provincial regional emergency operations centre,” he says in his report.

“The RFC, meanwhile, declined to answer questions filed with it the same day. Questions included why it issued warnings so much later than its U.S. counterpart, what it may have done with information available from its U.S. counterpart, and when it alerted EMBC about severe flooding risks in the Abbotsford, Merritt, Princeton and other areas.”

Parfitt concludes, “In the face of silence, the flood of questions is certain to grow.”