Watch Lake-Green Lake Volunteer Fire Department. (File photo).

Watch Lake-Green Lake Volunteer Fire Department. (File photo).

Independent volunteer fire departments facing challenges

Thompson Nicola Regional District asking province to help partially fund fire departments.

The Thompson Nicola Regional District is appealing to the B.C. government to help partially fund independent volunteer fire departments, which will no longer receive grants-in-aid and other financial contributions because of potential liability issues.

The move follows decisions by the Cariboo Regional District this summer to establish a board policy against grants for assistance to its 10 independent fire departments, while the TNRD also plans to cut taxation funding to the 70 Mile Volunteer Fire Department in 2022. Both regional districts cite potential liability issues, noting as the independent fire departments are not under their control they aren’t subject to the same level of training and other standards.

“We have gone to the government and asked them to intervene and figure out a way to fund small fire departments,” said Sally Watson, a 70 Mile resident and TNRD director for Bonaparte Plateau. “The small fire departments, the brigades, put out small fires before they become big ones. They’re integral to stopping forest fires.”

The situation also prompted former MLAs Donna Barnett and Coralee Oakes to send a letter this fall to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Selina Robinson asking that legislation be drafted to ensure regional districts aren’t liable when funding independent fire departments.

Independent volunteer fire departments, some of which operate as incorporated or unincorporated societies, may not be part of regional districts for various reasons – either because they don’t want to join or because their fire service areas may be too small to have the tax base to be able to operate as a fully functional fire hall.

The latter is the case in 70 Mile, which currently receives $30,000 annually in taxation from the TNRD but continues to operate independently. To join the TNRD, the fire department would need a tax base of at least $150,000 to ensure it can meet standings in terms of training and equipment upgrades as per the B.C. Structure Firefighter Competency & Training Playbook.

“For many society fire departments it’s a real challenge to fund and manage fire departments to meet the standards of the day,” said Jason Tomlin, manager of fire protection services for the TNRD, which runs fire departments in South Green Lake and Loon Lake.“When you have multiple departments providing support, they all have to have the same level of support and training on the ground so they can do things in a safe manner. If a fire service area is too small it doesn’t have the assessment. That becomes a bit of a challenge.”

READ MORE: Grants for assistance extinguished for independent fire departments within Cariboo Regional District

CRD CAO John MacLean agreed, noting the regional district strives to ensure all of its CRD-run halls meet the regulatory requirements.

The decision to establish a board policy against grants for assistance to independent fire departments in the district was made largely because of the halls’ legal status, including unincorporated or incorporated societies. In particular, there are concerns that providing grants for assistance may be seen as tacit support for the independent departments. This leaves the regional district open to lawsuits if it is perceived as an ‘authority having jurisdiction’ ‑ liable for actions taken by an independent volunteer fire department.

“This was a hard decision, and our board thought long and hard before taking this step,” he said in a media release at the time. “Given the totality of the information we have received we felt we would be putting the district and its taxpayers at risk if we maintained the status quo.”

The Cariboo Regional District sought advice and direction from other regional districts looking at similar circumstances, its legal advisors, and the Office of the Fire Commissioner before making the decision.

MacLean acknowledged the question of how to address independent fire departments is top of mind for all regional districts. However, he noted most of the CRD independent fire departments that lost grants-in-aid, including the South Cariboo’s Greeny Lake and Watch Lake-North Green Lake Fire Departments and the Hawkins Lake Volunteer Fire Association, were largely funded by their own sources.

Bob Campbell, who just retired this week as Chief of the Hawkins Lake Volunteer Fire Association, agreed, saying while the grant money was nice to have, his department will survive because it holds several fundraisers, including a community barbecue and winter bonspiel, as well as bottle drives throughout the year.

“It wasn’t like a do or die situation,” Campbell said. “It’s just a sign of the times. Everybody is worried about liability or whatnot. We’re just keeping our options open.”

But Tom Manion, who sits on the Board of Directors for the Watch Lake-North Green Lake Volunteer Fire Department, said while his department has a strong tax base, he worries about smaller ones going forward. His department will work with Greeny Lake and Hawkins Lake to see if there are ways they can help by sharing equipment or training.

“I’m just astounded by the lack of support,” he said. “If you are responsible for the regional district why are you not supporting people in the district? What is more important? An art gallery, or putting someone’s fire out?”

70 Mile Fire Chief Cam Robb maintains the money should stay in the community. While the fire department takes advantage of all funding sources, and recently got a new Structural Protection Unit, the $30,000 from the TNRD is a big help in providing necessary items such as hoses and turnout gear or upgrading its 30-year-old hall.

“They’re citing liability reasons but I think there’s an argument to be made that they aren’t liable if it’s community money and should stay in the community,” Robb said. “The wheels are in motion to resist that. Getting these funds is a huge factor in getting people trained. For us, every little bit counts.”

The Office of the Fire Commissioner declined to comment due to the recent B.C. election.

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