What’s being experienced right now in B.C. isn’t a wildfire season, it’s a catastrophic event.
These were the words White Rock Lake wildfire incident commander Mark Healey used when sharing what he’s seen this year, based on his 28 years fighting wildfires, during a public information meeting hosted by the Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) at the Falkland Community Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 11.
“I have been on hundreds of fires,” said Healey. “This is the most volatile season I have ever seen.”
Healey said there is a lot of science being gathered this summer that will inform how wildfires are fought in the future in B.C.
The meeting provided an opportunity for the CSRD and the Shuswap Emergency Program, the Falkland Fire Department, the RCMP and the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) to inform residents directly of the efforts and resources that have gone into the 58,000 hectare (as of Aug. 12) White Rock Lake fire which spans multiple local government jurisdictions.
Among the first to speak, Falkland Fire Chief Troy Ricard spoke to the tireless efforts of local firefighters and their wish to do more.
“We’ve got a line of firefighters along the wall that have worked their asses off for the last week,” said Ricard. “We’ve had several conversations about wanting to be out there and doing more, being out in Monte Lake and being out in the backcountry and putting out those fires, but that’s not our mandate. Our mandate is to be here and protecting the community of Falkland. And the work that we’ve done over the last seven days has prepared us for the worst should the fire come in our direction.”
Regarding Monte Lake, and individuals who may have defied evacuation orders to protect their homes, Ricard said it isn’t worth risking lives to protect a little bit of property.
“I don’t want the community of Falkland thinking that’s a great idea,” said Ricard, explaining how individuals staying behind could impede firefighting efforts, referring specifically to neighbourhoods with only one road in and out.
“I can understand people wanting to stay home and protect their property, but at the same time there’s going to come a point where it’s more a hindrance than a help,” said Ricard.
Ricard encouraged residents to have sprinklers ready to put on houses where possible, with faucets marked, and to be prepared for the possibility of another evacuation should it be required.
Healey spoke to available resources, noting he generally can get what he asks for to help fight the fire, but resources are stretched thin and there is need of qualified people as well as heavy equipment.
“We’re asking in every community if you can do that, if you can provide that for us, we will hire you and put you to work,” said Healey.
A little over 60 minutes of the one-hour and 44 minute meeting went to public questions. One that came up in different variations had to do with the initial response – “Why did it take so long to get on this fire?”
Healey responded, saying he expected the question, and there would be a time and a place for the answer, but not at that meeting. Healey stressed his present focus; his job is to fight the fire.
One resident raised concerns around temporary passes issued to evacuees and related security. Shuswap Emergency Program (SEP) Operations Section Chief Sean Coubrough said staff worked hard to get a permitting system in place but that it ended up being a “bit of a dog’s breakfast” with other regional districts having their own systems in place and the RCMP left to sort them all out. He said BCWS is working on a single permitting system.
One resident commented on communication, explaining how whenever he asked local firefighters about what was going on, they’d say they know as much as he did or nothing. Ricard said there had been a lot of growing pains around communication, especially over the first few days, but that has since changed for the better.
“As a volunteer fire department, if we start giving out information that we don’t know is 100 per cent factual, all we’ve done is become another Facebook, spreading rumours and false information,” said Ricard, adding he’d instructed his firefighters to be cautious.
Coubrough and CSRD communications person Tracy Hughes stressed the best places for timely, accurate wildfire related information within the regional district are the CSRD website, www.csrd.bc.ca, and social media feeds, as well as the BC Wildfire Service website.
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