The 2017 wildfires will be forever etched in Staff Sgt. Svend Nielsen’s mind as a highlight of his policing career in 100 Mile House.
Nielsen was on vacation at Sheridan Lake in July that year when his children noticed fire in the distance. The next morning, he got a text from a colleague: “I need you back now.”
“All hell set loose,” Nielsen, 49, said.
After returning to town, he grabbed a couple of mats from the gym and two of his jacket and slept under his desk for the next three weeks. “I would walk into the briefing in shorts and a T-shirt because I had just woken up,” he said.
“Those were horrible circumstances – people lost everything – but what an absolutely amazing experience to go through and have that community spirit come to the forefront. It was something to remember.”
As a police officer, Nielsen is used to dealing with tragedy. But working with the community – as well as the District of 100 Mile and Cariboo Regional District – during the wildfires, underlined the reason he swapped over his golf clubs for a sidearm in 2003: to help people.
Now, after five years in 100 Mile – his longest stint anywhere as an RCMP officer – Nielsen will be leaving his hometown in June for the Kootenays, where he will take over as staff sergeant in the Elk Valley. His replacement hasn’t yet been named.
“For me, the motive for the change is to develop myself,” he said. “It’s just a different challenge.”
Nielsen said he has wanted to help people ever since high school but was daunted by misinformation that he would need to speak French, and have life and university experience. After attending university in Kamloops, he became a golf pro instead.
But policing kept calling to him and he decided to go for it.
In 2003, he was posted with the Kamloops City detachment, where he immediately found a path in supervision and mentoring. After three years, he transferred to the Masset detachment in Haida Gwaii, where he and his family spent two years and “had a wonderful experience.”
Campbell River came next. While there, he was sent to Ottawa to learn forensic science – fingerprinting and photographs – but found it didn’t suit him.
“It just removed myself too much from people,” he said.
A brief sojourn to Comox was followed by a move to Fort St. James, which “turned out to be one of my favourites posts,” he said. While there, he spent a time juggling both that community and Vanderhoof – “probably one of the greatest challenges I had.”
He moved to Vanderhoof next, but after two years, a posting came open for 100 Mile House – and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“I grew up here and always wanted to come back,” he said. “To be honest, I didn’t think I had much of a shot because I was kind of a junior in the ranks.”
Working in your hometown has pluses and minuses, he said. People like former MLA Donna Barnett, who knew him when he was six, came over during a wildfire meeting, gave him a hug and said ‘OK, let’s get to work.” When they were evacuating 108 Mile Ranch – where Nielsen grew up – he knew exactly where to go.
“There’s a connection there that goes beyond the norm,” he said. “There are definite benefits to having local knowledge of the area. It’s called 100 Mile RCMP but it should be called the South Cariboo RCMP.”
When the wildfires hit in 2017, Nielsen hit the ground running. Although he had some experience with the Little Bobtail Lake wildfire in Vanderhoof in 2015, he said these wildfires were “a steep aggressive learning curve on a big event.”
“For me, professionally, that was one of the highlights of my career, to be involved in that,” he said. “It was truly fascinating. There were tragic circumstances but unfortunately police tend to deal with tragedy a lot.”
Nielsen said the past few years have been tough, especially with COVID and general anxiety, as well as a lack of community supports.
“The safety of the community is our responsibility. You have to answer to that,” he said. “We do take our hits but there are a lot of triumphs as well.”
Nielsen added being a police officer has met his expectations and he encourages others to take a leap if they are interested.
“As long as you have an interest in people and trying to make a difference in your community and trying to solve simple issues that can be a good thing for people.”
Editor’s note: This story was edited to provide some clarification.