Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services are assisting the wildfire response in Kelowna, with two firefighters, a water tender, and fire chief Scott Driver, who are headed to the Okanagan to lend their expertise as part of a groundswell of inter-agency support from across the province.
Up to 60 homes have been confirmed damaged or lost due to wildfires in the Central Okanagan region, while a full accounting of the devastation has yet to be completed.
Now identified as the Grouse Complex wildfire, it encompasses the McDougall Creek fire burning in West Kelowna, the Clarke Creek wildfire in Lake Country and the Walroy Lake wildfire in Kelowna.
Collectively, the fires have burned over 130 square kilometres and touched off thousands of evacuation orders and alerts.
Driver, the director of Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services, arrived in the region on Sunday, while firefighters Murray Robertson and Jeff Brown arrived the day before with a water tender.
While the BC government declared a provincial state of emergency on Friday (Aug. 18), Driver said the province has a standing seasonal surge capacity where municipal fire departments can deploy resources to a wildfire that’s burning in areas outside of their home jurisdiction.
“They send out regular requests — ‘Does anyone have resources they can deploy?’” said Driver. “Those departments that have some resources are on that list right from the beginning of the year and we can all see, and as the fire chief for the City of Cranbrook, I could see they were in dire need of resources.”
For Cranbrook’s fire department, Driver said there was a push this year to train more staff into command positions and to get expanded and specialized training for regular duty members, which helps the department ensure it can take care of any local emergencies, while also assisting elsewhere in places like Kelowna.
“When this one [request] came in, we were fortunate enough to have the right amount of staff to backfill the station and to take care of the city, at the same time as we could send a tender with two people on it, and me in a command vehicle.
So, we filled two requests there.”
Though City of Cranbrook firefighting resources are being deployed to the Okanagan, Driver said there are cost-recovery mechanisms in place with the province and local taxpayers won’t be on the hook for making up any financial shortfalls.
The inter-agency relationships between municipal fire departments and provincial programs such as the BC Wildfire Service have only deepened as fire seasons have become more extreme in recent years.
“BC Wildfire Service has recognized the need for surge capacity on the structural defence side is much greater than we’ve ever had in the past and so they’re very rapidly spooling up the surge capacity mechanism which is the structural defence, structural protection crews right across the province,” Driver said.
“They’ve made a very strong push to train municipal government fire departments on the different synergies and tactics that are required to deal with wildland fire that’s impacting the communities.”
That point was echoed by Cliff Chapman, Director, Wildfire Operations with the BC Wildfire Service, who noted there are distinct differences between wildland firefighters and municipal firefighters who are primarily trained for structure protection.
“When we call in municipal fire departments, they support us in our structure protection, which is the deployment of sprinklers, pumps, mass water delivery systems, quite a complex system to try to reduce the relative humidity in and around the community, as well as directly spray water into the fuels so that the fire has less fuel to burn in an ideal situation,” Chapman said, during a provincial press conference on Monday, Aug. 21.
“I think this is one important piece because the BC Wildfire Service firefighters, while they can support the deployment of sprinklers, they are generally focused on trying to steer the fire away from the community and using our suppression tactics to keep fire out of communities.”
It has been a busy summer for Cranbrook Fire and Emergency Services.
The department provides fire protection for the ʔaq̓am community and was called to the scene as the St. Mary’s River wildfire blew up on July 17, driven by heavy winds across the landscape.
The fire grew to 40 square kilometres and destroyed seven homes as firefighters from Cranbrook and Kimberley immediately responded to the scene for structure protection and defence.
Dozens of firefighters from fire departments across the province arrived in the area to assist over the coming days, while hundreds of BC Wildfire Service firefighters, contractors and air assets conducted direct fire suppression efforts with control lines and planned ignitions.
Right as firefighters were getting a handle on the St. Mary’s River fire, the Lladnar Creek wildfire got going west of Sparwood.
Driver said one Cranbrook firefighter went directly from ʔaq̓am out to Sparwood to assist, as the department was able to absorb his absence, while Driver also did a two-week deployment to Fort St. John earlier in the fire season.
Operationally, Driver said the intense fire season and steady nature of ever-increasing calls for service have been taking a toll on the department.
“There’s no way to say we’re good; I can’t shrug it off. It’s had an impact and it likely will have an impact going into the fall, but the team is very much aware and doing everything we can to make sure that we’re serving our core needs for the community and for ourselves and we can see the snow will fly. It will end, but it’s not going to come without its cost.”
“…I do believe I have a membership and an organization that can handle this, but we can’t ignore that it does need to be actively handled, we do need to manage ourselves.”
With files from Gary Barnes/Black Press Media