Local states of emergency help communities cope with disasters. Here’s how they work

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CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change on the prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how it impacts everyday life.


In the last year, Alberta and Saskatchewan have seen their fair share of local emergencies, be it wildfires, drought or flooding.

And as climate change brings more variable weather with bigger storms, more intense droughts and longer wildfire seasons, they will see states of local emergency declared more often. 

So what do these declarations mean?

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A state of local emergency gives a municipality powers it doesn’t normally have, such as evacuation orders or distribution of essential supplies. 

Because each community has different needs, states of emergency also differ. 

According to the Alberta Emergency Act, local authorities are responsible for their own emergency management, says Barb Gamble, provincial operations centre manager with the Alberta government. 

“The City of Edmonton has a lot more resources than a smaller hamlet would have,” Gamble says. “So what would be something that would cause a small hamlet to call a state of local emergency, may not cause Edmonton to call a state of local emergency.”

In Alberta, states of local emergency last for seven days (or 90 days if the emergency is related to a pandemic) and then expire or are renewed, according to Gamble. They can also be cancelled at any time. 

How do they work?

Whether a state of local emergency needs to be declared depends on the community in question. 

Gamble uses the example of a forest fire. 

In the example, if a portion of Community X needs to evacuate, a state of local emergency would be declared to assist in the evacuation, she says. 

“State of emergency gives them authority to evacuate folks. So if they don’t comply, RCMP or local police can remove them,” Gamble says. 

In this case, the local director of emergency management would alert the mayor a state of emergency is needed.  

Once a state of emergency is declared, the provincial operations centre in Alberta or the provincial emergency operations centre in Saskatchewan is alerted. 

The centres can offer extra assistance if needed. 

“An emergency alert would be issued, and potentially there would be door knocking. And then they could engage mutual aid or bring in other jurisdictions to come in and help battle the flames.”

Even after the disaster is over, the state of emergency can help as things return to normal, Gamble says. 

“The state of emergency gives the [municipality] the authority to say we need the power folks to restore power, or the hospital to be staffed back up before people come back in,” she says.

Putting it into practice

In Saskatchewan, a state of local emergency was issued last May for the City of Prince Albert and Regional Municipality of Buckland as a wildfire raged north of the city.

Prince Albert fire chief Kris Olsen was working during the fire which he calls a once-in-a-career event.

“Smoke was observed near the city of Prince Albert to the north and the smoke was quite substantial,” he says. “So of course, crews were initially dispatched. And I mean, the size of the fire was definitely growing.

“Conditions were dry and hot. We hadn’t had moisture for quite some time. So yeah, the fire really took off in a boreal-type forest with old growth.”

Smoke from the May 2021 wildfire across a grid road northeast of Prince Albert. (Submitted by Marg Yungworth)

As residential and commercial structures in the area were cause for concern, city council declared a state of local emergency, Olsen says.

The state of local emergency empowered the local authority to control or prohibit travel, to evacuate 34 homes, to enter buildings or go on land without warrants, and to remove trees, shrubs or crops, he said. 

But states of local emergency are important not only when it comes to evacuation situations, but also with what comes next.

“It wasn’t just the initial evacuation, it wasn’t just the suppression effort,” Olsen says. “We had displaced citizens that required lodging, food, you name it. There were some issues with livestock as well and pets.” 

 


Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.



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