Thompson Nicola directors frustrated with lack of answers from B.C. Wildfire Service over massive 2021 fire | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Thompson Nicola directors frustrated with lack of answers from B.C. Wildfire Service over massive 2021 fire

FILE PHOTO - Thompson Nicola Regional District directors are unlikely to get the review of 2021's White Rock Lake wildfire they've asked for. They voiced their frustrations to B.C. Wildfire Service at an April 21, 2022 board meeting.

B.C. Wildfire Service brass gave a forward-looking presentation the the Thompson Nicola Regional District this week, offering a look into its future year-round strategies but the board is still waiting on an explanation for what happened at last year's biggest fires.

The presentation offered an overview of the increased provincial funding to the wildfire service and how it plans to put more effort into wildfire prevention in B.C. but when directors got their chance to speak they accused the wildfire service of withholding answers to questions they sent in advance.

"I'm sure it took quite a while to put some of these facts and figures together and I appreciate the work that you've done," director Ward Stamer said at the Thursday meeting. "There was significant questions about the review of what went right and what went wrong last year. Obviously B.C. Wildfire Service doesn't want to share that information with us, otherwise they would have."

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He didn't go into detail and reiterate what those questions were, but he described them as "simplified" in hopes of getting answers from the wildfire service at the April 21 presentation.

Stamer advocated to the board to seek such a review at a meeting last fall. He became critical of the response to the White Rock Lake wildfire which scorched the Monte Lake and Westwold area last summer, growing to one of the largest and most aggressive fires in the 2021 season.

But Stamer was just one of several board members to voice concerns toward the wildfire service at the April 21 meeting. Some questioned the speed at which hospitality workers, restaurants and equipment operators contracting for the wildfire service were paid, claiming some businesses were promised payment within 30 days but have waited somewhere between three and six months after sending invoices. Director Steven Rice raised concerns about equipment operators that have been made to leave a fire zone while trying to help build fire breaks.

Board chair Ken Gillis raised one of the most pressing issues for the board, which was discussed at the September board meeting. Gillis asked Kamloops Fire Centre manager Kaitlin Baskerville and operations director Rob Schweitzer about the possibility of an in-depth operations investigation of the White Rock Lake wildfire.

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"If a fire can destroy three communities and 85,000 hectares, just what kind of fire would it take to warrant a full blown investigation?" he asked.

Schweitzer, although unclear of Gillis's definition of a "full blown investigation," said there is no threshold where a wildfire investigation would be elevated to a large scale review of the response to a single fire but added there is an investigation into the cause of each wildfire in the province.

The White Rock Lake wildfire began on July 13 and was found to be started by lightning. As it spread, residents began to criticize the urgency of the wildfire service response while some stayed behind to protect their homes, defying evacuation orders.

The B.C. Public Safety Minister said in August that those who stayed behind during evacuation orders risked the lives of firefighters. Instead of fighting fires, they would be forced to rescue people still within the fire zone, he said.

Schweitzer assured the board the wildfire service regularly reviews its tactical decisions over the course of a wildfire response, assessing the effectiveness of each decision.

"Wildfires are naturally occurring and in some cases, catastrophic events," he said. "We don't have the luxury of pausing and doing reviews during the fire and to do it after would take resources away from the prevention, mitigation and preparedness work that we do... And it is more the learning during the operations that we capture and adjust our tactics."

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The wildfire service and Emergency Management B.C. is getting $145 million from the provincial government over three years to transition into a more "proactive" response to wildfires.

The funding will help the wildfire service employ more people for year-round operations, including prevention and recovery.

Baskerville also said the wildfire service found success last year working with local First Nations and other communities when wildfires sparked. Local groups can help provide knowledge of the landscape and provide equipment to fight the fires.

She said the wildfire service will continue to work with local communities when wildfire starts, while it will also use additional provincial funding to retain and advance its employees over the course of a year.

As the wildfire service gears up for the 2022 season, its responded to several small fires in the Kamloops fire centre so far this year.

A human-caused fire between Ashcroft and Spences Bridge is currently under control at less than two hectares, with another west of Lillooet is also under control and has reached 8.5 hectares.

The largest fire in the province as of April 22 is in the Cariboo region near Anahim Meadow. The human-caused fire was discovered April 18 and has reached 50 hectares, but it is currently being held.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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