UPDATE: 3:29 p.m.
A pair of Kamloops MLAs are calling on the city to bolster its emergency planning after evacuations last week from Juniper Ridge were plagued by delays.
Todd Stone, MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson, had to evacuate with his family from the Juniper Ridge neighbourhood on Thursday as a fast-moving wildfire spread near the area.
Stone said he is thankful for the city’s first responders, who did “an absolutely extraordinary job that night.”
“We’re grateful that they continued to pound the crap out of this Juniper Valley fire over the weekend, and they kept us safe as a result,” he said.
“I think the failures here are at a planning and protocol level.”
With only one exit out of the neighbourhood, Stone said it took his family just over an hour to get from their Juniper home to Valleyview Drive.
He said other residents reported the drive — about two kilometres in all — took them upwards of two hours.
“Anyone that was in the long line of cars trying to get out will understand when I say that it was a dire situation. You could see the orange glow of the flames, and the big, thick plumes of black smoke, and emergency personnel ripping back and forth,” Stone said.
“Meanwhile, most vehicles were at a standstill for significant times, as we were trying to evacuate. We were stopped at one point for over 20 minutes, and didn’t move at all. And so the whole experience was worrisome, and for many it was terrifying.”
In a letter addressed to mayor and council, Stone and Peter Milobar, MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, urged the city to coordinate with the neighbourhood community association to put together a detailed emergency evacuation plan for Juniper Ridge.
They also asked for steps to be taken to facilitate more than one lane of traffic going down Highland Road during future evacuations, as the single lane caused bottlenecks and delays as cars exited on Thursday night.
They also request gates at two emergency egress locations — which were locked on Thursday — to remain unlocked and open for the duration of fire season.
Stone said there are two gates — one at the west end of Qu’Appelle Boulevard and the other at the top of Coldwater Drive, also in Juniper West. He said his understanding, based on anecdotal information, but he has been told that residents broke through the locked gates after quite some time waiting.
“For a good chunk of the evacuation period, those gates were locked. And it was up to residents to try and figure out how to break those locks and open up the gates. And by the time they were able to do that, we were halfway or more through the evacuation,” Stone said.
“Lots of lessons to be learned here.”
Stone said it’s also important that the city look at a means to communicate quickly and effectively with residents in an emergency event, possibly using an app system like Voyent — the emergency alert system used by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.
He said early Thursday there was some confusion, as a caller to a radio station incorrectly identified the fire as being in Juniper West.
“There wasn't a fire in Juniper West, the fire was in Juniper East. But a lot of people heard that there was a fire in Juniper West who live in Juniper West and it caused a tremendous amount of panic,” Stone said.
Stone said faster communication or notifications from the city would have helped to give some residents reassurance, and others confidence in their decisions at critical moments.
“It’s just one small example of the importance of making sure that people are making personal decisions based on what is actually accurate information as opposed to the best intentions of people who are trying to help, who inadvertently put information out there that that's actually inaccurate,” he said.
Stone said Milobar and himself will also advocate for “significantly more” provincial resources used for rural-urban interface fire mitigation, clearing out brush and removing fuel from grasslands and forests that border neighbourhoods.
“The risk is prevalent across the city,” Stone said.
“While this situation that we're talking about today really speaks to an emergency that unfolded in Juniper Ridge and Valleyview last week, it could happen in any part of the city, and it's why we need proper emergency evacuation plans and more resources to keep the public safe throughout the City of Kamloops.”
ORIGINAL STORY: 4 a.m.
Some in Juniper Ridge are upset, feeling they were placed at risk last week when delays made it difficult to flee the subdivision as an aggressive wildfire threatened homes.
As the fast-moving blaze crept up the hillside toward homes during an intense Canada Day thunderstorm, it took some residents nearly two hours to get down the hill to safety in Valleyview.
Others who attempted to escape through an emergency access road to Rose Hill were faced with a pair of problems — first a locked gate for which no one had a key, then literal roadblocks in the form of parked construction equipment from a nearby residential development.
According to the city, the missteps will be a learning experience. That might not be enough for residents, though, some of whom launched an online petition that had garnered nearly 4,000 signatures as of Sunday night — the goal being to make it easier to flee Juniper Ridge in the event of an emergency.
“We were out the door, I would say, by 9:30 p.m.,” Juniper Ridge resident Sarah Stamper, who lives in the neighbourhood with her husband and three kids, told Castanet Kamloops.
“And it took me until 11 p.m. to pull into Shoppers Drug Mart in Valleyview. It was 11:06 — I remember looking at the clock.”
For those 90 minutes, the Stampers and hundreds of other Juniper Ridge families sat not far from the fire in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic, hoping winds didn’t shift the flames and leave them trapped.
The devastation that could have been is unthinkable, Stamper said.
“It was OK — they got us out,” she said.
“But it could have been so much worse. What if the wind would have switched and the rain wouldn’t have started? Who knows what would have happened.”
Coun. Arjun Singh was deputy mayor of the city on Thursday when the storm hit. He admitted there were hiccups.
“It took some time to get out, but everybody who needed to get out did get out,” he said.
“With these very chaotic, quick-moving events, sometimes we get caught a bit unawares. I think we are learning more and more that we have to be super prepared for anything. I don’t think anyone would have thought lightning would hit and then in half an hour Juniper would have to get out.”
Singh said the city is responsible for the delays.
“It caused unnecessary anxiety,” he said.
“That’s certainly on us that it happened. No one hopes or expects that a whole subdivision like that would have to get out so quickly. That’s a lesson learned. We have to be prepared for that.”
Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian said he’s sure the issue of emergency egress from Juniper Ridge will soon find itself on a city council agenda.
“There’s been a number of suggestions about the Juniper-Rose Hill connection, the Juniper-Barnhartvale connection, the Westsyde-Rayleigh connection, the Pineview Valley connection — there are a number of places where we have connectivity issues,” he said.
“It’s a question of how much money it’s going to cost, whether or not there’s money available in terms of the woodland fire-protection system. So that’s going to be important discussions that council will be having in the coming months, I’m sure.”
The petition launched by a Juniper Ridge resident in the wake of the gridlocked evacuation is calling for improved access to emergency egress in the subdivision. Stamper did not have anything to do with the launch of the petition, but she said she signed it wholeheartedly and encouraged others to do the same.
“Thursday was awful,” she said.
“I don’t wish it upon anybody. I will never forget that day.”
Stamper and her family spent Thursday night sleeping on borrowed air mattresses at her workplace. They then spent Friday in a hotel before returning home on Saturday.
At the hotel, she said, just about every other guest was an evacuee from Lytton, where a wildfire destroyed most of the village the day before the blaze that threatened Stamper's home and so many others in Juniper Ridge.
“I was talking to them in the lobby,” she said.
“They’ve lost everything. That puts things in perspective.”
With a chance of lightning in the forecast for Kamloops in the coming days, Stamper said she knows Juniper Ridge residents will be anxious the next time thunder claps in the skies above the city.
“Everyone’s going to be worrying and people might run and leave before anything even happens,” she said.
“We’re going to be listening. And our bags are still packed by the door — we’re not being lax about that.”