Smouldering ground due to a forest fire Medium

Project Director Finds his Purpose and Optimism in Emergency Readiness

By Evan Duggan

The experts in our organization consistently drive towards having an impact. Those impacts fuel our success and deliver innovative solutions for our clients, communities and the built environment.

Michael Higgins has helped people face crises and challenges for nearly 40 years. During his time in the Canadian Forces, then in various levels of government, and now with Colliers Project Leaders, Higgins has experienced, and helped catalyze, a dramatic shift in how Canadians deal with floods, wildfires and other natural disasters.

"When I started dealing with wildfires many years ago, forestry workers and firefighters were the people that flew off and did stuff in the middle of nowhere," Higgins says. "Somebody might occasionally smell some smoke, but it wasn't something that most communities were concerned about."

Higgins is Project Director with Colliers Project Leaders’ Climate Readiness, Risk and Recovery team. Despite the heavy weight of his responsibilities, Higgins doesn’t forget to focus on his own happiness, and part of that stems from his sense of purpose and contribution in his role.

Canadians are unfortunately much more intimately aware — and experienced — when it comes to natural disasters that cause devastation to homes, communities, infrastructure and farmland. A blanket of smoke covering Western Canadian skies in August is starting to feel like an annual tradition. Many other parts of Canada also struggled through the worst wildfire season on record in 2023.

There are a few reasons behind this shift. "The climate is becoming more aggressive," says the resident of Hixon, B.C., a tiny community on Highway 97 located midway between Prince George and Quesnel in B.C.’s Interior. Weather events are more extreme and are causing more devastation, like the fire that burned Lytton, B.C. to the ground in 2021 and the deadly flooding that re-created Sumas Lake in the Fraser Valley, and spilled mudslides across highways, severing the Lower Mainland from the rest of the country and costing the B.C. economy an estimated $17 billion.

Also, we are building homes and infrastructure deeper into the wild in more exposed, unpredictable terrain, Higgins says.

What is the Climate Readiness team?

Higgins and his team at Colliers Project Leaders work as facilitators for communities and organizations, helping them thoughtfully plan and decide how they will respond to and execute action plans before and after a disaster. Preferably, it’s before.

The team uses a project management approach to break down the objectives and deliverables into distinctly resourced, attainable, digestible, accountable and measurable quality-led projects.

"We help to rip the scary off an event," Higgins says.

The Climate Readiness team can also serve as an interpreter between local organizations, governments and residents while providing a "surge break" in the early part of a disaster when things feel most chaotic and uncertain, he describes.

Higgins’ career has taken him through many roles that have prepared him for his current purpose. He’s worked with the Security and Intelligence branch of the Canadian Forces and in wildfire and emergency response management roles with various governments, including Yukon, Alberta and the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George.

Shifting the approach to emergency management

"The history of emergency management came out of civil defense, which was primarily populated with military methodology," Higgins says. "That stayed for quite a while as a command-and-control methodology to manage emergencies.”

Things are changing, Higgins says. Now, emergency management is about providing a project management-centric approach to disasters before they unfold, and during the aftermath when they do.

The contemporary approach is a lot more collaborative and business-like and succeeds best when teams like Colliers Project Leaders are engaged with designers, governments and builders before infrastructure gets built.

For example, Higgins says his team will ask a question, like whether a new community centre is being designed to also serve as a gathering spot for the public during a disaster. It should be, and if it is, the building will require a specific set of equipment and designs.

In recent years, our Climate Readiness, Risk and Recovery team has worked with the Northwest Territories Government Fire Recovery for the community of Enterprise; Fort St. John's Evacuation Planning Review and Refresh; and the Sumas Prairie Flood Risk Mitigation program with the B.C. government. The team also helped the First Nations Health Authority develop a Mobile Emergency Facilities Program, among other projects.

Just this past summer, the team was tasked by the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District to facilitate its wildfire recovery. Known as the Bush Creek East Fire, the blaze was described as one of the most aggressive, extreme fires ever dealt with by BC Wildfire Service. The wildfire destroyed 176 homes within the regional district and partially damaged another 50.

Shuswap recovery resulted in novel strategy

The approach in the Shuswap was among the most novel so far, Higgins says.

Three months after the fire, the regional district had roughly 30 case files open involving individuals or households that had been affected by the fire, who were still receiving support. Some of them were vulnerable populations or families who could not find a path forward to begin their recovery.

Higgins and his team created a "risk workshop." These brainstorm sessions focused on finding specific solutions for these individuals and groups, and involved all the support organizations and partners. The organization representatives all signed NDAs and then got in a room together to have frank, open conversations focused on identifying solutions.

"The first case took us over an hour to get through to find a cohesive resolution amongst the groups as to how to move forward," Higgins says. "We got through the remaining cases in record time, because we had developed a mechanism of speaking to each other, and developed trust, leadership and communication in the room. Then we got all of them done.”

In the Shuswap, most people needed either accommodation or funds. Many people were left with nothing after the fire.

Higgins was able to bring together various groups, including charities, faith-based groups, government and local organizations to get funds, support and accommodation to the people who needed it most. In some cases, that could be the delivery of income support or a mobile home or a travel trailer as a first step towards recovery.

Realization of impact drives Higgins

When Higgins reflects on his motivation, it’s that he can see the impact his work and team can have on people and communities.

Higgins also thinks about those 30 individuals and families in the Shuswap who needed support from the network of governments, organizations and agencies, but couldn't find the right approach to recover.

"My motivation is also being a trusted advisor to our clients and staff within our home organization," Higgins says. "That means being able to support our ability to be responsive to many of the implied needs of our clients, to incorporate climate resilience and risk mitigation into their projects on the front-end, rather than at the end."

Reflecting on his career thus far, Higgins jokes there was probably an easier type of work out there. “But I can be pretty stubbornly optimistic about making positive change work for the people it's intended to help.”

Original article appeared on the Colliers Canada website.

Michael Higgins

Michael Higgins

Michael is a seasoned leader and operational response planner with more than 35 years of experience in community, public safety and emergency management. He has worked with diverse organizations, from small communities to federal government departments, demonstrating strong attention to detail, solid leadership and crisis communication skills. His expertise extends to various domains, including public safety volunteer, search and rescue, wildland fire responses, and strategic leadership in emergency management and 9-1-1 public safety projects. Michael is known for his big-picture thinking, challenging the status quo, and fostering sustainability and resilience in a changing climate. His ability to integrate complex technologies and provide sound decision-support assessments makes him a valuable asset during emergencies.