Firefighters are urging residents to take action sooner rather than later this wildfire season, especially after last summer’s fires in Rock Creek.
Dan Derby, deputy fire chief with the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB), said the district is making efforts to improve on fire response from last year.
“In regards to communications, that is an ongoing struggle we have from a staff capacity to alert the community of an emergency,” Derby said. “We’re looking at different tools that can be used to notify people.”
However, Derby said that interagency communication is going well, with different community stakeholders and first responders meeting to plan in the event of an emergency.
“We get that whole mix of responder agencies who would respond in the event of an emergency, we meet to share information and train together and work together as best we can,” Derby said.
The district has released new FireSmart regulations, encouraging people to keep their properties safe and information on how to do so. The emergency guide identifies things like picking a meeting place and knowing where to get accurate information as important in the event of an emergency.
In order to protect your home, B.C.’s FireSmart guide recommends keeping trees spaced at least three metres apart, pruning branches hanging close to the ground, and keeping 10 metres around your home free from materials that could ignite.
“Changes within 10 metres of your home will have the biggest impact,” according to the FireSmart guide. “A FireSmart yard includes smart choices for plants, shrubs, grass and mulch. Selecting fire resistant plants and materials can increase the likelihood of your home surviving a wildfire.”
In the wildfire season summary, the BC Wildfire Service reported 19 fires of note in 2015. These fires ranged from 50 to 12,500 hectares across the province. At its height, the service recorded 2,500 people working on the fire situation, with 310 of those workers coming from abroad. A total of 1,144 homes were evacuated, and the service reported that losses were especially heavy in Rock Creek, although on paper it was a mid-sized fire.
Last year, 280,605 hectares burned across the province, well above the average of 130,329.
Fred Marshall is an outspoken critic of last year’s fire evacuation orders. Marshall said that he believes there was lot of miscommunication and misinformation, and the nature of the evacuation orders wasn’t clear last year: he said residents need to know leaving is their choice, and isn’t mandatory.
“It was inappropriate application of evacuation orders. [The RCMP] enforced them as if they were mandatory instead of judiciously as being voluntary,” Marshall said.
The province recently increased the fines for failing to comply with orders: a failure to comply with a fire restriction will cost you $1,150, up from $345.
Marshall said the district isn’t liable for what adults choose to do, even if that means staying on their properties during a fire.
“[Giving the order], that’s their due diligence, there is no liability under the present act. If there’s concern, have me sign a waiver like a ski lift ticket,” he said. “You’ve done your job, advised me, given me my orders.”
However, Marshall notes that residents choosing to stay need to be smart about it. It’s not about just staying put, he said.
“Evacuation is going to be different for everyone,” Marshall said. “You have to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. You can’t have just anyone staying.” He added that factors making it reasonable to stay on your property include knowledge of fire behaviour, resources like access to water, and good defensible space around your home.
“‘Orders’ sound mandatory. I think if the fire fighters can go in, the locals should be able to go in, assuming that they have reasonable skills and health,” Marshall said. “No one’s going to get me off my property. It is my lifelong dream here.”
Marshall sent a letter to that effect, and in response the Ministry conceded orders are voluntary.
“While emergency responders warn residents of the imminent risks of remaining in an area subject to evacuation, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual to voluntarily evacuate,” wrote Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness Naomi Yamamoto in response to a letter from Marshall.
Michael Fenwick-Wilson is a Rock Creek resident who chose to stay on his property during the fires last summer. He said that although his interactions with the RCMP were reasonable, he felt there was a lack of clear direction.
“You have a bunch of people from outside the area who don’t know the lay of the land and they keep everyone out,” he said. The province has proposed changes to the Emergency Program Act that would give the RCMP the power to arrest people refusing evacuation orders, but these changes are still under consideration.
Residents affected by last year’s Rock Creek fire are still recovering, and people are still stepping up to help.
Glenda Bashor is a Grand Forks resident and a member of the local faith community. Her work in disaster preparedness started after Hurricane Katrina, and after her move to Grand Forks last spring, was moved to help after the fires over the summer.
Bashor and other members of faith groups in the area have banded together to create a network of help that can be mobilized quickly, in the event of another emergency.
Bashor said the group is not a disaster response team—rather, they’re collecting resources that can be used alongside aid in the event of an emergency. That includes personal care kits, a notification system, and a network of people who know how to help through food preparation, animal storage, or camping space in the event that homes are destroyed.
“The idea is that here in the community we join with other groups in being prepared,” Bashor said. “It’s a team of people being prepared and doing what we can to be proactive and not reactive.”
Bashor said the group isn’t trying to address a shortcoming.
“We are a response that those groups can draw from. We’re not meeting a need so much as we are providing a broader base of support for response groups to draw from,” Bashor said.
Derby said the message is always one of help, regardless of where it comes from.
“From my perspective the response to the fires was excellent,” he said. “We had fire departments from across the Kootenays, from as far as Big White, all responded to the area to support the BC Wildfire Service.
“Personal preparedness is hard to promote, people either want to do it or they don’t do anything,” he said. “But what we can do is raise awareness and make the materials available.”
Derby said it is unclear what the season will bring so far. Recent rain is a good sign, but its still not enough to say for sure. “There is general concern for how dry it has been so far,” he said.
With 30 homes decimated by the Rock Creek fire last year, Derby suggests that residents put serious thought into trying to fireproof their property before a fire strikes.
Precautions like being careful about what kinds of plant you put near your house, paying close attention to fire warnings, and keeping important documents in a fire safe container all play a part in making sure you can minimize the damage, he said.
“Homeowners with rural property have a responsibility to manage the risk of fuel around your home,” he said. “It’s a shared responsibility to reduce the impact of fire on the landscape.”
– With files from Sherri Regnier from the Trail Times.