Physically surrounded by reminders of the historic 2017 wildfires — including remnants of the forest fire that almost claimed their building July 7 — staff at the Cariboo Fire Centre (CFC) are busy preparing for the fire season ahead and whatever that may bring.
“There’s a real sort of aura at the fire centre as all the crews come back and it’s really good to see all the fresh energy returning as we recall crews,” said Mike Gash, CFC manager.
Gash, who took over as fire centre manager last year but has lived and worked in the region for the past twenty years, said he and his staff and the BC Wildfire Service in general have been listening to the stakeholders and the public since experiencing the provincial state of emergency in 2017 and have implemented sweeping changes to how the government responds to fires.
“We’re ready. Can you ever get ready for a July 7, 2017 event? Probably not, but we’ve taken a lot of learnings from that and implemented change.”
Gash said the BC Wildfire Service itself has changed from being solely a fire suppression organization to taking a greater role in land management, such as managing area forests and surrounding areas for resiliency. He said he saw a “huge opportunity” to make a significant difference in local communities when he took on his new role as manager.
“The last two fire seasons, 2017 and 2018, both locally and provincially have caused a large level of expectation from the public on how we manage wildfire and our forests. BC Wildfire takes that very seriously and are taking steps to increase our collective resources provincially in acknowledgment that fire behaviour has changed,” he said.
|The Horsefly Fire Complex in 2018 was managed by the Cariboo Fire Centre. Angie Mindus photo|
Part of that response includes increased financial contributions from the government to hire more wildfire staff as well as a commitment to increase contract firefighting crews, with a particular emphasis in hiring contract firefighting crews from Indigenous communities.
Gash said they are also utilizing the forest industry much more than before with industry task force teams who are equipped with line locators and appropriate equipment that can be mobilized with one phone call to hit fires fast.
“We’ve had great success the last few years with the industry task force teams and plan to continue to grow that this year.”
Dave Fleming, the new deputy fire centre manager, added the industry task crews have all the equipment needed to action a fire and work effectively to reduce response time.
“We will put them on standby as conditions warrant it,” Fleming said, noting the task teams can also conduct night operations to suppress wildfires when the temperatures are cooler.
In an effort to support local resources, Gash said they have also revisited the rate structure for equipment for hire, which generally has resulted in increased hourly rates.
Gash encouraged any equipment operators that have not signed up with BC Wildfire Service to do so.
Out of recommendations from the 2017 fires, the BC Wildfire Service has also refocused their zone officers to be responsible for set geographical areas, managing fires and interacting with industry, Indigenous communities and stakeholders in those areas.
In the Cariboo Fire Centre, those areas include Quesnel, Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and Alexis Creek.
Another approach to tapping local knowledge, in the Quesnel area the CFC is reintroducing fire wardens.
Fleming said they have had individuals take training as fire wardens who can then be used to check into reports of fires or help with logistics in the zone if CFC staff are busy.
“They will be a really local contact for fires that are out on the land base where we might not have crews out there quickly otherwise,” Fleming said.
Gash said through his 10 years working as a forester in the private sector, and his past 10 years serving as the regional manager of the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, he feels his broad knowledge of the geographical area, the communities and their needs will be an asset as they head into another fire season.
He personally has witnessed significant changes to the timing and severity of wildfires over his career, due to the changing climate conditions and changing fuel types associated with the mountain pine beetle epidemic and believes the BC Wildfire Service is well prepared to meet the needs of another fire season under the currently unpredictable conditions.
In his personal life, Gash and his wife Sarah are raising a daughter, 15, and son, 12, in Williams Lake, and noted he appreciates their support during the fire season.
Fleming recently moved to Williams Lake from Mackenzie and has 14 years with BC Wildfire Service. He is originally from the Kootenays.
Both men said they enjoy the team atmosphere and challenge of working at the CFC.
“The sense of camaraderie crews have built over the years here is something you don’t see in many places,” Gash said.
Helping for CFC along in the communications department is fire information officers Jessica Mack and Erin Bull.
|Jessica Mack heads up communications at the Cariboo Fire Centre as a fire information officer. Angie Mindus photo|
Mack worked her first year in the communications position last year, and prior to that has six years working as a dispatcher with the CFC.
This year Mack will be assisted by Bull, and together the two are responsible for keeping the media and the public informed — a challenging task considering the speed in which situations can change during wildfire season.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Mack admits, noting their biggest challenge is getting information out in a timely fashion.
Mack, who was born and raised in Williams Lake, encourages the public to only gather information from verified sources,and the use the BC Wildfire Service website where there are interactive maps and information regarding wildfires gets updated several times a day.
She noted the work can be stressful, but that CFC staff work very well together.
“A lot of the people who work here support each other. It’s very much like a family environment, I find personally, and I think by having that, it really helps people feel supported and understood by others because it is a unique environment,” Mack said.
Currently there are approximately 170 people employed within the Cariboo Fire Centre, including 12, three-person initial attack crews, 20-person unit crews at each zone as well as about 26 regular staff.
For more information about the Cariboo Fire Centre, or BC Wildfire Service, visit the website where there are tabs for Wildfires of Note, Interactive Wildfire Maps and Emergency Info BC.
Currently the fire danger rating in the Cariboo Chilcotin region is considered ‘moderate’ with pockets of ‘high’ danger ratings.