Wildfire information laid on the table

Around 40 people attended the Cariboo-Chilcotin wildfire information session at the Creekside Seniors Activity Centre on March 28.

Presented by the Cariboo Regional District (CRD) and the Cariboo Fire Centre (CFC), representatives detailed their roles and responsibilities during emergency and wildfire responses.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett welcomed everyone to the meeting and thanked all of the local volunteer fire departments for helping “save lives they probably didn’t know they saved” during last year’s wildfires.

CRD protective services manager Rowena Bastien gave an overview of how the emergency response system works.

The CRD uses the British Columbia Emergency Response Management System (BCERMS) standards that are mandatory for provincial ministries, agencies and Crown corporations, and are recommended for local governments, federal agencies, First Nations communities and the private sector.

In order of priority, the BCERMS goals are to provide for the safety and health of all responders, save lives, reduce suffering, protect public health, protect government infrastructure, protect property, protect the environment and reduce economic and social losses.

Bastien explained the roles of the incident command post (ICP), which is the on-site response centre where the responders rally and resources are applied to solve the problems under the management of an Incident Commander.

She then outlined the role of the emergency operations centre (EOC), which is a pre-determined facility away from the emergency and provides support through policy, co-ordination and resource direction to the ICP.

Noting the issuing of evacuation alerts and orders is the primary responsibility of the local government, she explained alerts are issued as warnings of an imminent threat to life and property, and people are asked to get prepared to leave on short notice.

When an EOC issues an evacuation order, people must leave the area immediately, and local police or the RCMP enforce the orders. Bastien emphasized evacuation orders are issued on the recommendations of the CFC and the incident commanders, who have the experience and knowledge about interface wildfires.

She then talked about the importance of the role played by the Emergency Social Services (ESS) and, in particular, acknowledged the 100 Mile ESS group under the guidance of Liz Jones.

“They are a magnificent group of volunteers and have done a superb job. I cannot say enough good things about them.”

Noting the ESS group is contracted out by the CRD, Bastien said ESS provides short-term assistance for people who are forced out of their homes.

Chris Betuzzi, who is the forest protection officer for the 100 Mile House zone and works for the CFC, was up next.

He detailed the weather conditions that led to the widespread wildfires the Cariboo-Chilcotin experienced last year, which exploded on July 28 and dry lightning and gusting winds lit up the forests. The peak intensity lasted until the end of August.

Betuzzi said during that period, there were 798 fires, almost half of the number for the entire season, including 157 starts in one day and most hectares (74,000) burned in a single day. All, he noted, were aided by a cold front and the dry fuel conditions that pushed the fires very quickly.

“In just a three-day period we had 400 [mostly in the Cariboo-Chilcotin] new starts. In the province, we only have 200 initial attack crews, so even if they were all based here, we still wouldn’t have been able to catch those fires.”

He added firefighters are definitely facing challenges going into the future.

“You can argue about climate change all you want, but it’s real and we have the statistics to prove it. It affects us by lengthening the fire season, and it’s also going to make summers hotter and drier.

“We can all look around at the various ponds … and they are drying up.”

There are fuel-management challenges in most communities, Betuzzi said, adding controlled burning is something that has to be done.

He also pointed to the 300 or so volunteer firefighters in the area who are not only trained to fight structural fires, but can also fight wildfires.

“We couldn’t do it without them.”