Four B.C. Wildfire Service contract workers returning home from firefighting efforts in Vanderhoof died in a vehicle crash Tuesday west of Kamloops.
The two-vehicle collision happened one kilometre west of Juniper Beach Provincial Park, on Highway 1 near the town of Walhachin, at about 2 a.m., Ashcroft RCMP said Wednesday.
One of the vehicles involved — a semi-tractor trailer — caught on fire. The driver of the semi-truck escaped before the vehicle was engulfed.
RCMP said all four occupants of the second vehicle, a Ford F-350 pickup, died in the crash. They were all from different areas of B.C.
Investigators say the driver of the pickup failed to navigate a bend in the road to the right, crossing the centre line and colliding with the semi-truck head on.
Cpl. James Grandy, a spokesman for the B.C. RCMP southeast district, said all four were working as subcontractors for the B.C. Wildfire Service.
“This year has been particularly challenging for the B.C. Wildfire Service, with several of its members facing injuries or losing their lives,” said Grandy in a statement on Wednesday. “Our thoughts are with the friends and family of those who help keep our province safe.”
Highway 1 was closed in both directions for the investigation, but has since reopened.
In a joint statement, Premier David Eby and Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said the four contracted wildfire fighters were driving home after assisting with firefighting near Vanderhoof.
“Our hearts are broken by news of the death of four wildfire fighters who were travelling home after a tour of duty and were in a motor vehicle accident near Cache Creek,” Eby and Ralston said in the statement. “Our thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues grieving the loss of these brave individuals.
“This is devastating news in what has been an immensely difficult wildfire season. We stand with wildfire fighters and all B.C. Wildfire Service personnel as they mourn the death of colleagues and co-workers yet again.”
Attending the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting in Vancouver, Ralston told reporters it was more “devastating” news.
“It’s been such a tough season, and this is just more bad news,” said Ralston. “It’s emotionally wrenching and heartbreaking to hear of people who completed their work, are on their way home, and meet with their deaths on the road. It’s really tragic.”
Asked if there are rules around driving after exhausting work like forest firefighting, Ralston said those are details the B.C. Wildfire Service will address. “As contractors, they’re in a different position, but what the details of that are, I’m not able to comment at this point.”
WorkSafeBC confirmed in a statement Wednesday that an investigation has been launched into the fatal crash.
“Yesterday, WorkSafeBC received a report of the death of four individuals in an MVI,” said WorkSafe spokeswoman Alexandra Skinner. “I can confirm that WorkSafeBC has launched an investigation into this incident. The purpose of our investigation is to identify the cause of the incident, including any contributing factors, so that similar incidents can be prevented from happening in the future.”
No other details will be provided during the investigation, said Skinner.
There were four previous fatalities while battling wildfires in B.C., Alberta and the Northwest Territories this summer.
A 25-year-old Ontario contracted firefighter working for the wildfire service through a private B.C. company died in late July while fighting the almost 6,000-square-kilometre Donnie Creek blaze in B.C.
On July 13, 19-year-old Devyn Gale died while battling a wildfire near Revelstoke after she was struck by a falling tree. Two days later, 25-year-old Adam Yeadon died while fighting a blaze near Fort Liard, a hamlet in the Northwest Territories north of the B.C. boundary.
On July 19, 41-year-old Ryan Gould died near Haig Lake 140 kilometres northeast of Peace River, Alta., when his helicopter crashed while fighting another fire.
— With files from The Canadian Press