Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen and Madam Chair, for the opportunity to speak to you today.
I'm Al Richmond, the chairman of the Cariboo Regional District, a regional government in the central part of British Columbia. We are a large area of 80,000 square kilometres. We have a rural population of about 60,000 residents. We have 15 first nations, and one, of course, is the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, which just had the land title case settled in the Williams case.
You may have heard that our region was significantly impacted by wildfires last summer. Our emergency operations centre was open for an unprecedented 77 days. During this period, we had over 211 wildfires in our region. As a result of those wildfires, we issued about 149 evacuation orders and alerts, which is a staggering number. During most of these types of events, we might do six or seven, but it kept changing.
Throughout the summer, nearly 36,000 people in the Cariboo were put on evacuation alert and order, equating to about 60% of our population. In fact, 48% of our population was evacuated over the summer. These numbers reflect the data we have for our regional district residents and municipal residents, but they don't give the full impact on first nations communities in our region. Through our response, we had over 167 people working, because you can appreciate that, when we had our main offices evacuated, we had to bring people in from the outside. We brought in about 167 people over the period of 77 days with the co-operation of the Province of British Columba and various local governments throughout the province to help and assist us in doing the various tasks that we have in our EOC. It takes about 44 people to run an emergency operations centre of our size.
The unfortunate news is that we lost around 60 homes, as well as another 167 structures, for a total of about 227 structures. What is very fortunate for us, and we're thankful for, is that we had no fatalities. We did have some seniors and some people with complex care issues who passed away, not directly as a result of the fire, but perhaps indirectly in the transfer to other health locations because our hospitals were evacuated.
In B.C., local governments operate their emergency operations centres to respond to emergencies in their jurisdictions, and we have the ability to issue evacuation orders and alerts. The regional district has the authority, and our local municipalities and first nations also activate their emergency operations centres to respond to emergencies, and we all report to the PREOC centre of the provincial government. In our case it's in Prince George, and there's a central operations centre in Victoria. As local governments, we work together where we can, but we all have separate authorities, and we all issue our own evacuation alerts and orders for our residents.
Specifically referring to first nations in B.C., they issue a band council resolution to evacuate or to place residents on alert. We have no authority over the residents or their areas, because it's federal jurisdiction, but we work with them on a government-to-government basis to coordinate adjacent evacuation orders and alerts. We were very successful this summer in working with our first nations partners. We had a liaison from the Province of British Columbia in our emergency operations centre throughout the emergency who helped coordinate the flow between the regional district and various first nations. We included the first nations communities in our order and alert information in our public mapping program at their request, so all the residents in our region could see one map with all the alerts and orders.
Our message to first nations is that we will come and help and do everything for you if we receive an invitation. We have to recognize that there are autonomous levels of government. We are pleased if they invite us and ask for our assistance, but we're always cognizant and respectful of the fact that, when we go into their territory, we recognize the chief and the power of their councils. I can't say that enough. We're here to help. We're not here to tell people how to do things.
We coordinated the timing of our orders with the first nations, and if they were interested, we made some changes if they were at all possible. This meant we issued several joint press releases, hosted joint press conferences, and held some joint public meetings that were quite successful.
One challenge we saw with the first nations communities in the emergency this summer was how the different communities had varied understandings of their own authority as a local government. In some cases, they have limited capacity to respond. Some of our first nations set up their own emergency operations centres, issued orders and alerts, and coordinated emergency services for some residents without difficulty.
As for other first nations governments, I had a chief in our office who didn't know that they had the authority to do what we did. She thought we did it. She thought our evacuation orders applied to her, and I explained to her that no, she needed a band council resolution, and if they needed our assistance we would help them write that resolution. We were there to help, not to obstruct.
So they went back and managed through their own, but that chief and I had very close contact through the remainder of our event and evacuations here. It was not the proper time to build relationships, but we improved our relationships there.
We also had regular meetings with the band representatives to discuss how we would manage re-entry to our communities. I found in most cases that while it's important to have staff communicating with first nations staff, it's extremely important to ensure there's leader-to-leader interaction, because if you don't contact the leadership, if I didn't call the chief, they felt we weren't treating them as equals and they wanted that interaction.
The chiefs attended the first few meetings we had with respect to re-entry in our community. After that they sent their staff, and I was able to remove myself as it became a staff-to-staff conversation. We needed to keep in mind that for significant things we would contact them directly.
Overall our response in the region was quite successful this summer. We lost no residents. Our residents co-operated and left the area safely. We were able to adapt and refine our policies and processes as we responded, and we were able to coordinate with our local governments and learned a lot.
There's always room for improvement. Permitting re-access to locations was a challenge for us, and we solved some of those issues by working with our cattlemen's association on agricultural issues.
The reason I'm not in a place with the technology that would allow me to video conference with you is that we've been conducting 18 community meetings over the last two weeks to talk to residents about what they thought went right and what they thought went wrong so we can learn from our experience this year and move forward to do a little better job should this happen in the future, although I pray and hope that no one has to experience what we did this past summer.
Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes my opening remarks. I always learn more by listening, and so I'd be quite pleased to take any questions at this time.
Thank you so much.