Life in the B.C. Interior means environmental disaster could be just around the corner, a fact that certainly rings true in Merritt and the Nicola Valley, facing floods and wildfires in recent years that chased residents from their homes.

Now two years removed from the Nov. 2021 atmospheric river that flooded the town, the City of Merritt is taking steps previously unheard of in most of B.C. to ensure they are prepared for the next one.

A permanent emergency operations centre (EOC) has recently been established at the Merritt Airport, a longtime side project of past Emergency Program Coordinator Krista Minar that is now coming to fruition.

“She (Krista) did this part time off the side of her desk at the fire department,” Mayor Mike Goetz told the Herald while giving a tour of the facility. “It was pretty hard on her, and it just wasn’t a complete situation. But while she was here, we set up a lot of things.”

One of only a few communities throughout the province to now have a permanent EOC ready to go at any time, the facility includes a separate generator, internet capabilities, and a kitchen setup. The area is set up like a war room – desks are lined up and stacked with binders laying out evacuation plans, coloured vests drape over the backs of chairs for task force delegation – all ready to command as an operations centre at the drop of a hat.

“Everything is here ready to roll, this is all set up and ready to go,” said Goetz. “We are able to put a lot of people in here.”

The room used to be a meeting spot for the local flying club, before an attempt to make it a convention room for small get-togethers. When that idea didn’t take off, and the room sat empty, was when it was turned into the EOC.

“We’ve got emergency plans, evacuation plans, plans all over the place. We’ve got our binders all ready for everybody outlining the processes that need to go on.”

The thought process behind using the airport to set up command is actually quite simple – it is one of the highest elevated locations in the valley, almost completely negating any chance of flooding, and there are very few nearby trees, greatly minimizing the possibility of wildfire.

The available empty land in the area also played a major factor.

“If things get really bad, and we need to move people up there, we’re able to park probably about 400 to 500 RVs. And if things get to the point, we can simply just fly out.”

Usual protocol, and what has been done in the past in Merritt, dictates temporary EOCs to be installed in council chambers, something that Goetz said is “not effective at all.”

“The whole idea is that if we declare an emergency, we have somebody up here within four or five minutes, and a crew is here shortly after and everybody is going. We set up our team at the ESS at the Civic Centre, and we have three teams that can be working around the clock with security, with cultural monitoring, and trained in everything.”

Like in the past with wildfires and floods, the Merritt Civic Centre remains the initial Emergency Support Services (ESS) location where people can be processed, as it boasts more roads in and out than the airport facility. Only in dire situations would residents and evacuees be moved to the airport EOC.

The airport EOC has been a side project of city staff for around four years, pieced together slowly up until recently.

“They would pull together pieces when they needed to, but there was no real dedicated spot to just jump into. So in the old days, an EOC would probably take a full day, now we don’t have to do that. It’s ready to go right now.”

The City also expects to soon be one of the first communities in B.C. to have a full-time emergency management coordinator, with around a dozen applicants so far.

“We are completely trained to have people up and running and have people being serviced within seven or eight minutes. We are completely trained, we are completely ready to go with a plan that we will follow on any emergency. It is the plan that Tom Lacy brought up that the fire department still follows, but we are making a new plan once we get our EMC person involved. Their job will basically being ready for a disaster at all times. Not that we are going to have one every day, but we now know with the wildfire the way that they are, and the flooding that could happen with our dikes still not where they should be, we need to have emergency response at the drop of a hat.”

Goetz told the Herald that more information on the new coordinator and plan will be provided once in place.

“We are not without a plan. As a matter of fact, we’re more planned than anybody else in B.C. We are the least unprepared for what could happen. For a guy who was flooded and it took me 12 months to get my home back, I’m not kidding around with this stuff. I know what we went through, and I know what everybody in my area went through.”