Volunteer Vision: Wildfire deployment challenges volunteers
Firefighters are the kind of people that will help anyone, anywhere. For the most part, the communities they serve are willing to pitch in whenever needed too. That is, until it actually happens.
The unprecedented wildfire season that unfolded this summer in British Columbia scorched an area greater than Prince Edward Island. The last time I was involved in something like this was the 2003 wildfire season, known here as the firestorm. It was the worst season on record until this year. In 2003, fire departments were deploying well outside their boundaries for weeks on end with no formal policy or plan in place. Many times, emergency services figured things out after the fact.
Following 2003, fire services in the province did what any self-respecting service would do: plan for the next severe wildfire season. The following year, the BC Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC), the Fire Chiefs Association of BC and the BC Wildfire Service published a document called Inter-agency Operational Procedures and Reimbursement Rates. This document provides direction and clarity for the aforementioned agencies to mutually support each other during wildfire response.
As a result of the review, fire departments across the province are polled annually to offer up resources in the event they are required as part of a larger response effort. This is next to impossible for volunteer departments to provide. As I told the OFC this spring when the call initially came in, “I can’t guarantee a local response or who will be able to attend a call, say at 10:00 am on a Wednesday, let alone a six day deployment in June.” With that being said, it’s fully understood that when the wildfire call comes into a volunteer department, it’s a scramble to staff a water tender, not to mention the actual act of deployment.
In 2003, our department’s level of involvement was limited to myself working in an emergency operations centre in Penticton. All the while, I watched as departments across the province deployed apparatus and personnel. Why weren’t we there doing the same? I suppose it was a perceived lack of resources. It really takes guts to send your volunteers and equipment away when they might be needed at home. How would the ratepayers react to such actions?
We were a different fire department in 2003; it was only three years after amalgamation and we had recently started mutual aid responses. Many older staff members were hesitant to leave the community for mutual aid calls, let alone wildfire deployment.
The call came again in 2017, and this time I didn’t hesitate to ask the team to deploy. I told them in advance the call would be coming, but when we were actually asked assist in the wildfire efforts, it was met with some reservations. This time we had the capacity to help without compromising our protection locally: they soon came around.
Unlike in 2003, social media played a large role. People could see what other towns were going through on their Facebook feeds.
Pack up, let’s go, and see you in six to 14 days. Bring a sleeping bag and credit card, and keep your receipts.
When it comes to wildfire response, we can’t forget the benefits our department and members receive, especially as volunteers. I’m not referring to the remunerations. Wildfire deployment offers valuable experience and training through working with team members from other communities across the province.
As mentioned earlier, our team worked in the Williams Lake area. The community of about 12,000 people was evacuated while our members were there. One day they are part of a bustling community and the next, they were driving the streets of a ghost town. Members worked in task forces, each with about five apparatus. One task force had two career engines from the Vancouver area and three tenders from smaller volunteer departments. Our firefighters worked in concert with other departments by patrolling and providing structural protection support for 12 hours each day for up to 14 days. Each of our firefighters returned home from with a new extended fire service family. They all gained a better understanding of the importance of the service by being part of a greater cause with a much broader reach.
Although this was a terrible provincewide event, one that no firefighter would wish to ever have happen again, the crews that helped to control the wildfires were able to learn valuable lessons by working together. Just as emergency crews learned from 2003, this year’s unprecedented wildfire season has better prepared us should there be a next time.
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