Members of Gregg Archie’s fire brigade, many of them residents of Canim Lake, walk through the backwoods while fighting the wildfires of 2021. (Gregg Archie Photo)

Members of Gregg Archie’s fire brigade, many of them residents of Canim Lake, walk through the backwoods while fighting the wildfires of 2021. (Gregg Archie Photo)

FIREFIGHT 2021: Local firefighters ‘truly admirable’: Wagner

It was local fire departments who were first on the scene during the 2021 Wildfires

When lightning struck in late June, setting much of the South Cariboo ablaze, it was the local firefighters who responded first.

They were there within minutes, staying for days or weeks after to patrol or douse hotspots. Others offered their services to BC Wildfire by patrolling scenes, offering structural protection, shuttling water or aiding with pumps and hoses, as wildfires burned across every community. With the exception of 100 Mile Fire Rescue, most of these firefighters were volunteers – either in tax-based halls run by regional districts or independent societies. There are 13 halls in the South Cariboo, along with the Canim Lake Band.

“For these volunteer firefighters, to take this on and be willing to step up, it’s truly admirable,” said Margo Wagner, chair of the Cariboo Regional District, which oversees six volunteer halls in the South Cariboo region. “To me, wildfire firefighting is more dangerous than structure fires in the Cariboo. I totally give credit to the volunteers.”

From June 30 to Aug. 24, some 263 fires raged in the Cariboo, burning 129,591 hectares in the region. Almost every community was evacuated or on alert as firefighters battled increasingly aggressive wildfires that came on the heels of a heat dome. The threat of more aggressive wildfires to come has prompted many fire departments to consider more wildland training for their crews.

At the moment it’s a provincial responsibility to fight wildfires, although local crews are often called in to help BC Wildfire. They get compensated for their efforts.

“Our firefighters only get involved when an interface fire goes into a forest or vice versa,” Wagner said. “We always need more firefighters to be honest.”

John Grieve, fire chief of the Lone Butte Volunteer Fire Department, said given the changing face of wildfires, he is considering getting everyone trained so they don’t have to rely on crews coming in from elsewhere.

“It’s just becoming the norm,” he said. “We’re seeing wildland fires more often up here. We can’t just say that’s wildland’s job. We are seeing that obviously wildland is stretched thin so we have to step up.”

He noted it’s important to have both local and BC Wildfire crews working together, especially as wildfires are seasonal.

“These guys that are on the ground are doing as much as they can,” he said. “We don’t fight wildland fires all year. when they get this bad, how do you react? You can’t have people just sitting there waiting.”

While the Cariboo’s wildfire season this past summer was “busier than normal” according to local officials, it was nowhere near as destructive as 2017 in terms of total hectares burned in the region. In 2017, 871,005 hectares in the Cariboo burned, more than six times the area that burned this summer. More than 60,000 British Columbians were also evacuated from their homes due to the threat of wildfire four years ago.

By comparison, the Emergency Operations Centre at the Cariboo Regional District, which had already been open for a year dealing with floods, issued 6,000 orders and alerts and 56 orders from July 15-Aug. 15. It was focused on the wildfires for 53 days.

At the Emergency Social Services in 100 Mile this summer, volunteers provided 72-hour support and follow-up to 1,178 evacuees plus 125 kids from Deka Lake, Lytton, Egan Lake, Sparks Lake, 70 Mile, Flat Lake, Canim Lake, Falkland, Logan Lake and Lower Nicola, according to ESS director Liz Jones. About $318,153.33 was spent providing evacuees with lodging, billeting, food, incidentals and clothing.

Jones said her team worked 24/7 during the 2017 wildfires. While this summer it was intense during the initial days of the Deka Lake evacuation, ESS was then only open for four hours a day and available by phone. They were also able to place people closer to home, sending them to Lac La Hache, the 108 Community hall, 100 Mile campground or campsites behind the South Cariboo Rec Centre. Spaces for animals were offered behind the rec cente, the Williams Lake and Clinton rodeo grounds or by local ranchers.

“This year Lac La Hache got a lot because they were never on alert,” Jones said. “We had a lot of space this time around.”

Local restaurants also stepped up, with Smitty’s, the Chartreuse Moose, BJ’s Donuts and Canadian 2 for 1 Pizza providing lunches for the volunteeers. The Salvation Army food truck also provided “amazing” dinners for the Deka Lake evacuees and fire crews, she said.

“It worked well. We’ve never had them come before because we’ve always been an evacuated zone,” she said. “That was a good experiment. With more organization it would have been fabulous.”

District of 100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall extended his thanks to the firefighters and support crews with the BC Wildfire Service, the RCMP, Search and Rescue, ESS, and all the many agencies who supported the wildfire effort during a “difficult fire season. He also acknowledged the logging community for their “tireless efforts” assisting the Wildfire Service.

Campsall said in a media release that his staff worked tirelessly in the Emergency Operations Centre for most of the summer and said the district was thankful it didn’t have to put its Emergency Preparedness and Evacuation Plan to the test.

He added the district has been preparing for future fire events by undertaking fuel mitigation projects – harvesting, tree thinning, pruning and reduction of fuel loading – around 100 Mile House, Horse Lake and Lone Butte, thanks to funding from the Forest Enhancement Society of BC.

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