B.C.'s emergency alerts expanding to include threats from floods, wildfires

B.C. is expanding the use of its wireless emergency alerts to include imminent threats from floods and wildfires, the province's public safety minister announced Tuesday.

Mike Farnworth announced the change while giving an update on the upcoming flood and fire season.

"We're finding our province at risk like never before from the effects of climate change," Farnworth said during a news conference. "In many ways, British Columbia is on the front lines of climate change in Canada and it's clear we all need to do more to keep our communities safe."

The notifications come through Alert Ready, a national system used to improve public safety in the event of emergencies. Currently, they're used in B.C. for tsunami warnings and Amber Alerts.

The alerting system is ready to be used for imminent flood risk and will be expanded by early June to include wildfire threats.

Farnworth said the province is planning on setting up a process for extreme heat events, adding work is underway with the Ministry of Health.

The official opposition welcomed the expansion while wondering what’s taking so long.

“We have no idea why the government has taken so long to implement it for fires and floods,” Liberal critic Todd Stone told CTV News.

He said the national system has been around since 2015.

“It's a bit of a headscratcher as to why the government didn't announce they're going to use the alert ready system for other types of severe weather like that heat dome,” Stone added.

Nearly 600 people died in oppressive heat and many wondered if enough was done to warn people about the risks.

Last year, the province also faced significant criticism for not using the emergency-alert system during a series of catastrophic storms that closed highways and flooded several parts of the province. 

An electronic alert wasn't sent out even when homes were evacuated in Abbotsford.

"We didn’t want to alarm the whole city," Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said at the time. "It was our decision not to activate the provincial Alert Ready system for the whole city of 162,000 people at that time as we wanted to directly contact the 300 people who live in Sumas Prairie."

Farnworth also expressed reservations about using the system in November.

"What you're going to be doing is in fact broadcasting to a larger area and (causing) the potential for panic and putting strain on emergency resources, which are working overtime and round-the-clock to deal with the situation," he said last fall.

A test alert will be sent out on Wednesday at 1:55 p.m. During that test, an alert will be broadcast on radio and TV stations. It'll also be sent out on compatible cellphones.

The text on those tests will read: "This is a TEST of the British Columbia Emergency Alerting System, issued by Emergency Management British Columbia. This is ONLY a TEST. If this had been an actual emergency or threat, you would now hear instructions that would assist you to protect you and your family. For further information, go to: www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca. This is ONLY a TEST, no action is required." 

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos