The Coombs-Hilliers and Qualicum Beach fire departments are going into their fifth rotation of firefighters sent up to help with the wildfires in B.C.’s Interior, and both department chiefs said their firefighters are more than willing to keep helping.
Coombs-Hilliers Volunteer Fire Department chief Aaron Poirier said despite the conditions and long hours, the department’s firefighters have come back excited and wanting to go back again.
“They’ve talked about it being very smoky, but generally a feeling of people being very thankful for them being there; a lot of people stopping to say thank you on the side of the road or whatever it may be,” Poirier said. “The people walk up with their families and say thank you and it’s a pretty humbling experience.”
Poirier said it’s been a lot of new experiences for the firefighters who have never been deployed before.
“We’re working within a larger command structure as well working with different topography, different geography, different fire behaviours than we’re used to on the coast,” he said.
It’s a way to give back to the province, Poirier said, as well as the communities that need the help.
But, Poirier said, it can get tiring. He said two of the firefighters worked 113 hours in an eight-day rotation.
Coombs-Hilliers and Qualicum Beach first sent up two firefighters each in early July. Each set of firefighters works an eight-day cycle which is a day of travelling to the wildfire, six days of work and a day of travel back to the Island.
The two departments were originally sent up to Williams Lake, but have since been working in other locations such as Kelowna and Clinton where they’re currently stationed.
Qualicum Beach Fire Department chief Darryl Kohse told The NEWS over the phone from Clinton that it’s a bit of a ghost town.
“We have a community that’s been evacuated, so we have a whole town that has nothing but police cars and fire trucks and nothing else,” Kohse said. “We’ve got a haze of smoke throughout the whole community obviously with the fires that are burning.”
Kohse said the experiences for his firefighters have been a mixed bag. The first set of firefighters were sent up to Williams Lake to protect the mills, Kohse said, “because there’s a lot of lumber, and there’s a lot of money tied up into mill sites… so their job was mainly to support the mill sites.”
It wasn’t until the third group of firefighters, Kohse said, that they got a bit more action.
“The third crew started seeing more action because they were the initial crews on the Monte Lake fire, so they got to see a bit more of the fire themselves,” he said.
Kohse said being in the Interior and working on these wildfires is “very surreal.”
“The amount of power that you see from these fires that come through here, you wonder how you make a difference,” Kohse said.
Coming from the Island, Kohse said, fires of this size aren’t common.
“We’re very fortunate to be on the island that we don’t see fires of this magnitude. Not to say that it couldn’t happen, but with our moderate climate down there… our fires are smaller in size,” he said.
Both departments still have more firefighters ready to be deployed when needed.
Oceanside Emergency Support Service
Chris James with Oceanside Emergency Support Service said their volunteers helped about 15 families who were evacuated from the Interior. In total, they helped about 40 people.
“They were evacuees but they did have perhaps a relative or a friend that they could stay with so we did refer them for more services,” said James, adding a lot of evacuees came to the mid-Island.
James said three volunteers from the local ESS were also deployed with two sent to a First Nations reserve outside of Kamloops and one worked directly in Kamloops. He said they were registering and referring evacuees and also training people to do registration and referral.
“Of course it was long days and hot days, but everything I heard back from them was nothing but positive,” said James. “This is new. We’ve been sort of building up the team for the last few years. We’d been advised last year that it may be a possibility and we just worked hard to build the team up and get some good training, so if deployment did happen we’d be ready.”