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Calls grow for a national wildfire service, while Canada battles worst season

But Ottawa is saying no to a federal agency and Premier Eby is eying setting up local wildfire volunteer groups
Hot spots from the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire burn in Scotch Creek, B.C., on Sunday, August 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Mark Libera has no formal firefighting experience, but when spot fires threatened his Scotch Creek neighbourhood, he and fellow residents jumped into action.

The 66-year-old worked in the darkness in the early morning hours of Aug. 19, following the red glow and dousing flames before they spread to homes.

Libera was equipped with a fire pump — purchased on a whim after hearing about an evacuation alert while on a road trip back from the Lower Mainland — a 60-metre hose and two 400-litre water tanks in the cab of his pickup truck, which he refilled using water from an inflatable pool back at his home.

After 36 hours of fire fighting on steep terrain, Libera was able to save his home and several others. The only casualty was his steel-toed work boots, reduced to melted rubber as he used them to stamp out glowing embers that fell from the sky and separate smoking piles of bark mulch.

“I had all kinds of fires threatening me,” said Libera, who built his Morgan Drive home with his dad in 1997. “When I look at the whole block, this would have gone up for sure if I wasn’t here.”

On Friday, provincial officials said 131 structures, including homes, were razed in the Shuswap region, while 37 other buildings were damaged.

Libera was one of the many residents in the North Shuswap who defied the province’s Aug. 18 evacuation order and stayed behind to fight approaching wildfires during that weekend.

Libera kept in touch with his daughters, who live in Vancouver, on WhatsApp to reassure them he was fine even as they begged him to get to safety.

“I was just heading for the flames,” Libera said. “I didn’t feel in danger. I felt overwhelmed.”

If this were Australia, which relies on a massive army of volunteer “firies” to respond to brush fires across the country, people like Libera might be trained and contracted as volunteer firefighters.

But instead, tensions have flared between Shuswap residents who say they felt abandoned by the B.C. Wildfire Service and government officials who have scolded people for ignoring evacuation orders, saying they’re actually hampering firefighting efforts.

That’s led to calls for more wildfire resources for both prevention and suppression as the era of global boiling predicts more extreme droughts and fires in B.C. The problem is no one can agree on what those boosted resources should look like.

Some have called for Ottawa to establish a national wildfire service with trained crews that can be sent wherever needed in the country.

Premier David Eby said he’s more in favour of an Australia-style volunteer fire service, even as one wildfire expert questioned the ethics of anyone doing such a dangerous job for little to no pay, especially after a season where two people in B.C. died fighting wildfires.

In the face of the worst wildfire season on record and with hundreds of buildings and homes razed by fire in the Okanagan, the B.C. Wildfire Service has used 1,500 firefighters and 700 support staff to conduct fire suppression on the ground and from the air and light controlled fires to remove ignition from spreading fires. The fire service also relied on 500 firefighters from Mexico, Brazil, the U.S. and Australia.

After B.C. declared a state of emergency on Aug. 18 and with 35,000 people evacuated from their homes in Kelowna, West Kelowna and the southern Interior, the military was sent to help with evacuations and moving firefighters and their equipment.

Michael Flannigan, an expert on wildfire behaviour and landscape fire modelling, and NDP MP Richard Cannings, a biologist who represents South Okanagan-West Kootenay, are among the loudest voices calling for the federal government to fund a national wildfire service instead of relying on the military or foreign firefighters.

A national wildfire service, they said, would boost B.C.’s resources during the summer wildfire season and could be tasked to assist with the fuel mitigation work that is key to preventing wildfires in the first place.

“I know the minister (of emergency management and climate readiness, Bowinn Ma) said we have resources,” Flannigan said. “That’s not true, we don’t have enough resources. Why are we calling on 15 other countries to help us fight fires? We shouldn’t be using the military.”

Flannigan has heard the arguments against a national wildfire service.

“People say, it’s a provincial responsibility. It’ll cost too much money. Well, health and safety is a federal concern. And how much money (is Ottawa) spending on disaster relief this year? Every dollar spent on prevention and mitigation saves you five to 15 down the road.”

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan has so far ruled out a federal wildfire service. Sajjan said in a statement Canada has “sufficient resources to manage the wildfires.”

Cannings is disappointed with that take.

“We have to do more than we’re doing now because we are going to be overwhelmed, year after year after year,” he said.

When asked about the merits of a national wildfire service, Eby told Postmedia News there’s “considerable risk in the idea of a full professionalization of the emergency response.” The use of skilled volunteers could be more valuable, Eby said, than a centralized firefighting team with no local knowledge.

“It’s my understanding that through training and co-ordination, Australia has been able to leverage volunteer firefighters very effectively,” Eby said. “It’s something that our teams have looked at already. Certainly coming out of this fire season, I think that it’s something that certainly a number of people in the Shuswap would appreciate us looking at.”

Following the tensions in Shuswap, Eby said the B.C. Wildfire Service is reaching out to residents who know the local bush, work in forestry and know how to use heavy equipment to “try to take down the temperature a little bit so that they can all work together on the fires in a co-ordinated way and so there aren’t just people in the bush doing their own thing.”

That temperature reached a boiling point on Wednesday when about 20 protesters challenged an RCMP blockade set up near the lakeside community of Sorrento to prevent people from moving between communities. The B.C. Wildfire Service said it briefly pulled firefighting crews from the fire lines because of safety concerns. That just fuelled more speculation from residents that their community had been abandoned and they had no choice but to fend for themselves.

Libera likes the sound of a volunteer wildfire service that could work alongside B.C. Wildfire’s full-time complement when resources are stretched.

“That would be awesome,” he said. “If I was trained, if the government really wants to secure and protect communities, they should equip us with small little units.”

Contractor Ross Rathbone, who lives in Magna Bay about 16 kilometres east of Scotch Creek, said he and a team of local residents worked through the weekend using excavators and pickup trucks loaded with water tanks to attack flare-ups around the small town of Celista. His daughter, Tori, spent her 30th birthday on Aug. 21 carrying water jugs up the hill and building fire guards around smouldering underbrush.

“Some of the misconceptions that people have is you’re working around these massive flames,” Tori said. “It looks like a series of campfire around you with ash and smouldering ground. I think it’s important people are not putting themselves in a situation they’re not comfortable in.”

Her father is convinced the team of local residents preventing the fires from spreading east to his town of Magna Bay and Anglemont. Residents who stayed behind have been ordered by the RCMP to stay in their homes with roadblocks set up between communities, which Rathbone says has blocked crucial supplies.

“If it wasn’t for us, you know, not following those rules, I think this community would have been lost,” he said.

During media briefings this week, Ma and Cliff Chapman, B.C. Wildfire’s director of operations, warned against any behaviour that defied evacuation orders.

“When unauthorized people are in evacuation areas it escalates the danger involved for everyone,” Ma said Wednesday. “It also limits the kind of wildfire fighting tactics the B.C. Wildfire Service can deploy.”

Ma expressed concern that key B.C. Wildfire Service equipment had been moved, which means critical resources waste time searching for it and “redoing work that’s already been done to set up structural protection or just trying to manage an unpredictable situation — made even more unpredictable — by well-meaning but uncoordinated firefighting efforts.”

“The collective fight is with the wildfire,” she said. “In order to do this, our efforts need to be united, we need to work together, not against each other.”

The B.C. Wildfire Service currently calls on contractors in the forestry industry and career and volunteer municipal firefighters can be used when fires threaten structures and homes in a populated area, as was the situation in Kelowna area. B.C. Wildfire said this year alone it has requested and received assistance from 70 municipal fire departments for structural protection and structure defense work outside of their jurisdiction.

Robert Gray, a wildfire ecologist with decades of experience in B.C., said simply focusing on more firefighters “doesn’t help us get ahead of the problem.”

Gray doesn’t agree with Australia’s volunteer firie program “because firefighting is a professional undertaking. It’s dangerous.”

“You can’t expect volunteers to take on that kind of emotional and physical trauma, and not get paid for it,” he said. “It’s unconscionable.”

Gray contributed to the seminal report Firestorm 2003, sparked by that year’s devastating wildfire season, during which 334 homes and many businesses were lost. Gray said not enough progress has been made on a key recommendation that the province fund wildfire protection plans for communities. Those protection plans would include work to thin timber, cut underbrush and remove the lower limbs of trees and woody debris from the forest floor, measures that keep fire on the ground and away from the tree canopy where it spreads more rapidly.

Building capacity to do the fire mitigation work before that fire season, Gray said, will give the B.C. Wildfire Service more capacity on the response side. The province, he said, can no longer afford to take a reactionary response that will only lead to more scorched earth as future fire seasons promise to be longer and more severe.

“We cannot continue to have fire seasons like this. It’s literally killing people.”

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