Second wave of Island firefighters joins Interior fray

As Premier John Horgan extends B.C.’s wildfire state of emergency by two weeks, Island firefighters continue to help keep flames away from homes and protect key infrastructure in the Interior.

A second deployment of firefighters from across Greater Victoria has been sent to high-risk areas of the Interior where fires continue to rage.

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Firefighters from View Royal, North Saanich, Saanich and Sidney were instrumental in saving several lumber mills around Williams Lake stocked with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of logs. The mills employ hundreds of people.

Sidney Fire Department Assistant Chief Joe Geary described heavy smoke and burning embers raining down as firefighters soaked the logs to prevent them from catching fire.

“It was raining ash on us that night,” he said. “It’s a lot of jobs that could be lost if they were to lose the mill.”

The work, Geary said, is physically and emotionally exhausting. “It’s hot up there, the smoke is so thick your eyes start burning,” he said. At the top of mind for every firefighter, he said, are the families who have had to flee and worry about losing their homes.

Geary led a team of five firefighters that returned home Monday night and has been replaced by another five firefighters from Sidney.

While Williams Lake is a veritable ghost town amid the evacuation order, Geary said the owners of the town’s Tim Hortons and Dairy Queen have stayed open to provide food and coffee for firefighters.

A family of four was running the Dairy Queen, with kids aged eight and 10 serving hamburgers for free as their parents cooked in the kitchen.

One day while the firefighters were fuelling up the fire truck, a Williams Lake resident brought over coffee and muffins as a small token of appreciation, Geary said.

Four firefighters from Willis Point Volunteer Fire Department were working near the West Fraser Mill in Williams Lake until Wednesday and have now been sent to help in the Dugan Lake area. A replacement crew is being sent up this weekend.

Four Saanich firefighters were heading back to Victoria Wednesday morning after being replaced with four of their colleagues. Saanich firefighters are helping to keep the water flowing by looking after the water tender truck in the Soda Creek area, said Deputy Chief Dan Wood.

Firefighters from Langford, Metchosin and Sooke spent a week doing the graveyard shift to relieve firefighters in 150 Mile House. They walked around the dark and smoky landscape, putting out spot fires and going through 10,000 gallons of water in one night, said Langford Fire Chief Chris Aubrey.

Six Victoria firefighters are in Loon Lake, working to protect buildings and putting out hot spots before they flare up, said Deputy Chief Dan Atkinson.

“The conditions are challenging and the days are long, but all members feel a great sense of pride being able to provide assistance to the province in this time of need,” Atkinson said.

There are about 140 fires burning across the province, with four new fires breaking out Tuesday, said B.C. Wildfire Service chief information officer Kevin Skrepnek in a media briefing on Wednesday.

Almost 3,000 firefighters and support crew are working to get the wildfires under control, including 360 firefighters from out of province and 1,000 contractors from the forest industry.

About 35,800 people have registered with the Red Cross for assistance but the total number of evacuees is closer to 45,000, said Robert Turner, deputy minister for Emergency Management B.C. The Red Cross has received about 20,000 calls from people who have been displaced.

About three-quarters of families have received the $600 in emergency support cash that was available through the Red Cross.

Horgan announced Wednesday that families will receive an additional $600 for every 14-day period people are displaced from their homes.

“This is unprecedented. Traditionally, when an emergency is declared, people are usually back in their homes within the two-week period. That may not be the case for many individuals,” he said.

“It’s clear to me that we need to do more,” Horgan told reporters Wednesday outside the legislature on his first full day as premier. “We need to give additional support to the communities affected, and the first responders.”

The B.C. Wildfire Service has responded to 647 fires since April 1, burning a total of 530,000 hectares. The firefighting efforts have cost the service $105.4 million.

Rain is in the forecast for today across the Interior, and there’s hope that will bring a temporary reprieve to the hot and dry conditions contributing to fire danger.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

 

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