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Wildfires: Should BC Do More to Help Homeowners ‘Stay and Defend’?

It’s risky, but many saved their property by not evacuating. The Tl’etinqox First Nation fought side by side with firefighters.

By Zoë Ducklow 20 Jul 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Zoë Ducklow is a multimedia journalist and photographer in B.C. Her work has appeared in CBC Radio, CBC Indigenous and Glacier Media newspapers. Find her on Twitter here.

When Cheryl Monical heard the wildfire evacuation order, she was driving cattle to Lac la Hache, B.C., 20 kilometres outside of the evacuation zone in 108 Mile Ranch.

“We thought about evacuating. We threw some stuff in the truck,” she said. “But in the end, no one was coming to fight it for us. So we stayed. An RCMP officer came to the house. He basically took all of our information and wished us luck.”

Together with some neighbours who stayed behind, Monical’s family used hoses, sprinklers and repurposed weed sprayers to keep the pasture and buildings wet. The ad hoc fire crew excavated a fireguard to keep the fire away from a nearby forest and doused hot spots in neighbours’ yards.

In the end, the so-called Gustafson fire came within 200 feet of Monical’s house, but no further.

Monical and her family stayed to fight the fire against the recommendation of the local government and Emergency Management BC. And she isn’t alone.

A lot of British Columbians stayed inside the evacuation zones to fight the fire, and say they’d do it again.

Emergency Management BC’s current policy doesn’t account for people like this. Its priority is keeping people safe, and when fire threatens urban areas, evacuation is a reliable way to do that. The government’s integrated response plan also assumes people will evacuate when told.

This inevitably presents obstacles for those who choose to stay. For example, evacuated areas restrict movement, so while residents can choose to stay, they aren’t allowed to drive on public roads without a permit or re-enter the zone.

RCMP officers also set up blockades to keep roads clear for emergency responders and help protect evacuated towns from looting. But for those who stay, the blockades can be dangerous.

After helping her fortify her house, Monical’s neighbours who live outside the evacuation zone went home for the night with three water trucks. The next morning they weren’t allowed back in to keep fighting, so the Monicals were left with one water truck.

Other “stay and defenders” interviewed by The Tyee spoke of similar challenges.

Bryan Poffenroth, a rancher in Riske Creek, 40 minutes southwest of Williams Lake, said his family and neighbours stayed behind in the crux of the Hanceville fire.

Poffenroth said the RCMP got to know them and let some people through the blockades, but when friends came from Dawson Creek and supplies were sent from Fort McMurray, there were problems.

A house in Riske Creek
A house in Riske Creek, still standing. Photo supplied by Bryan Poffenroth.

“If someone’s got 2,000 feet of fire hose in their trunk, I mean, he’s coming to the fire,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a fire fight. There just isn’t time to get to the district office to get a permit.”

Poffenroth is reluctant to talk about what could be done better until after the fire season, but said some serious accountability is needed.

“We’ve been abandoned. It could have been handled so much better. We’re stubborn, not stupid,” he said. “I can easily name six houses that are still standing because we stayed behind. One house is still there thanks to just a garden hose. We needed to be here.”

Greg Messner’s ranch is on both sides of Highway 97 in 100 Mile House. He needed a permit to get from one gate to the other while he was trying to keep the fields irrigated.

“I’ve got a gigantic 60-acre hay field facing the fire from the north. Right now there’s a beautiful, thick, green second crop coming in that the fire would not burn through,” he said.

“I’m a 60-acre fire break in front of the town. If the fire were to jump Highway 97, it would get into my hay fields. So I’m trying to keep my irrigation going to keep them from drying out.”

Messner said his permit was denied for some reason not given, and then issued later the same day. The confusion has Messner calling for an early permitting process where people who have a legitimate reason to stay during a wildfire can already have a permit in place.

The roadblocks are zero tolerance with spike strips and handcuffs to enforce them. Residents shared stories of people trying to bring generator fuel, pumps or hoses to neighbours who were stopped and sometimes arrested at the blockades.

Others have been stopped trying to get groceries, or even navigating around their own fields that span public roads. Ranchers said they were delayed in rounding up cattle because their permits weren’t for the right day.

“They basically starve you out,” Messner said. “There’s no grocery stores open in the evacuation zone, so you have to go out of town. You can leave, no problem, but they won’t let you back in.”

Despite the complaints, no one’s blaming the RCMP officers; they’re doing their job. The problem is that the official plan doesn’t acknowledge that some people are going to stay and fight.

“What they fail to realize is that we’re neighbours. We help our neighbours,” Monical said. “And without those neighbours, things would have been a lot worse. To basically hinder people who are trying to defend their property, and their neighbours, is very detrimental in this situation.”

Rethinking the response

Should B.C.’s wildfire response be retooled to acknowledge the fact that some people will chose to stay and help the fight?

Fire research scientist Amy Christianson works with the federal First Nations Wildfire Evacuation Partnership, a research group of First Nations, government agencies and universities that works to identify negative impacts of evacuations and find ways to improve processes.

She said there is always a contingent of people who refuse to leave, yet Canadian policy has always been to evacuate, so there’s no plan for the fighters who stay back.

“I understand the evacuation preference for management agencies. Human life is always the top priority, and it’s easy to just evacuate everybody. Then fire crews only have to worry about fire,” she said. “But what was missing is the people’s ties to their homes and the land.”

BC wildfire
Research shows that houses are more likely to catch fire from stray embers and hot spots than being in the direct path of a wildfire. Photo: Province of BC.

Australia has a stay-and-defend system that has people decide well ahead of time how they’ll respond to potential emergencies, and then to prepare, so it’s not a scramble.

The most dangerous thing to do in a fire is leave at the last minute. That’s where the most fatalities occur. The stay-and-defend policy is meant to avoid this by encouraging early planning and preparation.

Research also shows that houses are more likely to catch fire from stray embers and hot spots than being in the direct fire path. Having able, prepared people around to douse small fires can make the difference between having a community to come back to or not.

A pre-planned stay and defend program in Canada could help synchronize the efforts of First Nations, ranchers and farmers with the fire management crews, Christianson said.

“Indigenous people are a fire culture. Quite a few of them are experienced fire fighters, and they know the land,” Christianson said. “It’s not like they’re just staying behind and sitting in their houses. These are people with extensive knowledge of fire behaviour who are actively involved in fire suppression.”

A stay-and-defend policy is complicated, with lots of its own danger potential. “I think agencies are willing to have those discussions, it’s just there’s always a difficulty with fire behaviour changing so quickly, you need to keep everyone informed,” she said.

Having an assortment of people staying to fight on top of the multiple agencies already involved makes communication complicated. First Nations have led the way in this area, Christianson said, by keeping communication channels open with other agencies to coordinate information.

Australia’s stay-and-defend program was criticized after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires where 173 people died. A public inquiry found the program too simplistic and called for more realistic advice, which is “unavoidably more complex.”

Since then, fire agencies have pushed the message that leaving early is the only way to guarantee your safety. But there are still resources for those who chose to stay, so that they’re coordinated and prepared.

“Leaving early is still the safest option. Staying to defend a well-prepared defendable home is also a sound choice in less severe fires but there needs to be greater emphasis on important qualifications,” the inquiry found.

‘We know what we’re doing’

After evacuating two years in a row from wildfires in 2009 and 2010, the Tl’etinqox First Nation reviewed its experience. Its reserve is in the heart of B.C.’s pine beetle infestation and in an ecological fire zone. Years ago, the nation used controlled burns to keep healthy forests.

“We’re a nation that’s always, always, generation after generation for hundreds of years, has lived in a fire zone. Our trees here are fire dependent. Living here, fire’s part of that nature,” Chief Joe Alphonse said.

So the nation made a plan to stay back and fight the fire next time, knowing there would be a next time. As a community, they developed a crisis management plan seven years ago. It includes everything from an emergency political structure to regular fire training to planned evacuation routes.

A lot of community members work in logging and heavy equipment, many are trained health care providers, many are safety officers, and through its winter training program the nation now has a qualified firefighting crew.

“When you’re surrounded by people of that quality, then you can be confident to say, ‘Yes we hear you have evacuation orders, but sorry, we’re not going to comply. We know what we’re doing.’ I’d put our crew up against any other crew in the province,” Chief Alphonse said. 

It isn’t an easy decision. The nation has put a lot of work into preparing its land, preparing firefighters, and cataloguing equipment and skills available.

“If any other First Nation ever wants to do this, I would say, really think twice,” he said. “You have to be confident with your staff, with the training you provide. My firefighters are some of the best firefighters around.”

From the moment the nation chose not to issue an evacuation order (First Nation reserves have jurisdiction to decide whether or not to evacuate, much like municipalities), cooperation with the fire centre was a no-brainer.

“We went to the fire centre that was here and said, ‘We’re prepared, these are the resources we have.’ We gave them the green light to take the lead, but we wanted to be involved in every aspect of planning and decision making with regards to this fire,” Chief Alphonse said.

Within a day, the Tl’etinqox crew had been adopted into the provincial crew, after a few hiccups ensuring everyone had the right qualifications and gear. “But we got through it all, and all our crews just fell into a routine; you know, it was like clockwork. And we’re still here.”

Experts say forest fires will keep on getting bigger, and the fire season is getting longer. With the last century of fire suppression policy, forests have accumulated a lot of fuel, waiting for a spark.

“It does make sense to have a plan,” Greg Messner said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh the big one’s coming in Vancouver, you know. Better have a flashlight and a couple chocolate bars. But up here, we get forest fires all the time now. What’s the plan for us?”  [Tyee]

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