Wildfire task force will look at engaging volunteers, Eby pledges

Written By Rob Shaw

“We don’t have the luxury of time between emergencies right now in British Columbia.”

––David Eby

Premier David Eby emerged from his latest tour of B.C.’s fire-ravaged southern interior with a pledge for a task force of experts to ensure a better provincial response next wildfire season.

But some of the community leaders he met say the Premier already knows what to do: Give the BC Wildfire Service a hard shove towards letting local residents help fight fires near their homes.

“BC Wildfire, I think, has to have a shift in attitude,” said Jay Simpson, the Columbia Shuswap Regional District area director for Scotch Creek and the North Shuswap — the epicentre of a highly-charged dispute between the province and local residents over fire response this summer.

“You’ve got to have the people in place who are able, and willing, to work with local communities.”

Jay Simpson

That attitude appeared to be missing in the early stages of the Bush Creek wildfire last month, after a handful of residents in the North Shuswap Lake area of Scotch Creek, Lee Creek and Celista stayed behind to fight an approaching wildfire using equipment the BC Wildfire Service had left during an evacuation order.

BC Wildfire initially accused the residents of thievery, mischief and endangering others. But residents, many of whom were volunteer firefighters themselves or skilled with heavy machinery, say it was their initial actions, not the BC Wildfire Service, that helped save homes during the earliest hours.

‘It seems we’ve struck a nerve’

After the premier got dragged into the dispute during an earlier tour of the area, BC Wildfire changed its tune and started offering training to locals who wanted to help.

“It seems we’ve struck a nerve somewhere,” said Simpson. “Maybe there was more people in our community that stayed back, but it does seem to have shifted the conversation from a place of ‘Lets try to work together,’ as opposed to ‘Kick everybody else out and let it burn.’”

Eby said Monday one of the areas the task force will examine is how “we’re able to incorporate volunteers into our work at all levels” in fighting summer wildfires.

Premier David Eby walks with people impacted by wildfires in the Okanagan in August. [BC Government]

“There are many people who in my last visit said look there are skilled folks out there who can be integrated into the wildfire service effort, and we need a path to do that,” said Eby.

“The wildfire service, to their credit, actually incorporated community volunteers in some of their firefighting efforts. At one point 17 local people were on a BC wildfire shift helping fight fires.”

Train locals before wildfire season, says mayor

Eby met with Simpson during his tour of Salmon Arm this week, one of many local officials, firefighters and displaced residents the Premier sought advice from.

Salmon Arm Mayor Alan Harrison also talked with Eby. He reiterated that training locals in rural areas to whatever certification BC Wildfire Service requires should be done before the summer season starts, so that willing residents can be spring into action quickly.

“It’s too late once the fire is underway.”

Alan Harrison

“And it’s understandable there was civil dissonance, and despite orders being given, some residents at the peril of their own safety, stayed behind,” said Harrison.

“That is going to continue to happen in the future. It’s important to involve those people as part of the firefighting team. That is the mechanism that is the most important.”

Eby looking to Australia for lessons learned

Eby said the province is looking to Australia, in part, for lessons learned. In that country, the government uses a highly-organized system of unpaid volunteers to respond quickly to emerging fires. In contrast, B.C. has a centralized approach of paid seasonal firefighters, with occasional help from municipal departments if a blaze hits an urban area. 

“How do we learn from Australia’s example on this?”

David Eby

“How do we learn from Australia’s example on this and provide additional resources so that frontline wildfire service firefighters can have a bit more of a break and not burn out on the frontlines?” said Eby. “These are all really important questions.”

Many of the suggestions Eby’s task force of experts is likely to hear will be specific to rural British Columbia.

Rural areas need help with costly fire prevention

For example, Simpson said he wants to see all graduating Grade 12 students in rural areas given the basic BC Wildfire fire training course (called the S-100) so that they are certified to help their communities in the summer if they want. The course is normally two days and costs $200, and the province should help subsidize those costs, he said.

Rural areas also need more help with wildfire prevention, because they are often surrounded by vast swaths of Crown land that the province has failed to thin or clear of debris to reduce the risk of fires spreading.

“Is it possible? I’m not sure. Is it expensive? Hugely.”

Alan Harrison

“Salmon arm is surrounded by Crown land, and to try and firesmart that area is an enormous task,” said Harrison. “Is it possible? I’m not sure. Is it expensive? Hugely.”

Simpson suggested clearcutting forests above rural communities to create fire breaks. Though it would likely cause some complaints from people and tourists upset at the sight of logged mountains, it would make the cities below significantly safer from a forest fire, he said.

‘They really seemed to sincerely be listening’

Eby, a Vancouver civil rights lawyer by trade, is not a rural politician. But the politicians who have met him during his wildfire tours say they’ve nonetheless been impressed at his willingness to listen, and the time he has taken to understand issues far away from the cameras and photo ops.

“They really seemed to sincerely be listening,” Harrison said of Eby and Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma.

Premier David Eby listens to a resident hurt by wildfire in the southern Okanagan in August. [BC Government]

“Every place where we went, and I was with them all the way, they were listening to people. The premier and the minister were not in a hurry. Everywhere we went, they listened and listened.”

“[The goal] … is that we get those independent voices … [to] assist us in identifying what we need to be doing better.”

David Eby

Although the premier has yet to name the members of the task force, he said once up and running it will move quickly to provide recommendations that can be enacted in real time. B.C. previously commissioned two independent reviews of its wildfire response under previous premiers, and both sit on shelves with very few recommendations actually enacted.

“The goal here with a task force is that we get those independent voices outside of government that assist us in identifying what we need to be doing better… so that we can put those recommendations, those findings, to work right away,” he said.

“We don’t have the luxury of time between emergencies right now in British Columbia.

“And so making sure that we’re deploying the solutions as recommendations come forward is going to be critically important and is what’s going to set this approach apart from what has been done previously.”