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Clearwater to lose permanent initial attack wildfire teams

BC Wildfire Service said it will base attack teams out of Kamloops
A wildfire sparked Monday morning fueled concerns about a lack of initial attack teams in the area. (Stephanie Hagenaars/Clearwater Times)

An out-of-control wildfire just north of Clearwater Monday fueled concerns about the upcoming wildfire season, as the BC Wildfire Service confirms it will no longer have permanent initial attack teams in the area.

BCWS said it will pull its initial attack teams from Clearwater and station them in Kamloops because of a lack of resources. The move means that instead of 15 minutes for firefighters to respond it could take upwards of 90 minutes, said Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell. The response time could take even longer, given the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion along Highway 5 and other potential traffic delays.

Blackwell said he has received calls from many concerned residents, wondering who will be on the ground to advise when to call for a bomber or helicopter support, or how small fires will be kept under control with no one in the area to respond.

“At this particular point, I’m praying for a very light wildfire summer. I’m praying for rain this year because the only solution I see to this really dire situation is getting through the summer,” said Blackwell. “Hopefully, the re-org of the B.C. Wildfire Service gives us something better going forward next year, but I wouldn’t count on that. I mean, once they leave, they generally never come back.”

The situation follows on the heels of the closure of Canfor a few years ago, which meant there were fewer industry-trained firefighters from the logging industry to assist. As the workload continues to be stretched thin, more and more people are saying they’d rather not get involved, Blackwell said.

READ MORE: UPDATE: Wildfire burning north of Clearwater seen from throughout district

The situation was underscored Monday when a fire broke out at the edge of what appeared to be a clearcut section of land near the Jones Creek area where logging activity had been taking place. It was reported just before 9 a.m. Monday and grew to about 2.5 hectares in just a few hours.

A BCWS spokesperson confirmed at least two crew members responded to the fire 2.5 hours after the initial call was made and 13 more were expected to help fight the blaze. By Monday night, the fire was categorized as “held.”

The Jones Creek fire, along with numerous other fires between Falkland and Kamloops Monday, is suspected to be human-caused and is under investigation, according to BCWS.

“We didn’t have to wait too long to figure out…that maybe three hours is too long for a call that could have been reached out of the Clearwater office in, I’m going to say, 15 minutes,” said Blackwell.

The fire has everyone on high alert following last season’s wildfires, which destroyed several communities. Although the 2021 wildfires didn’t burn as much area as in 2017 or 2018, it was “arguably more severe” due to the number of fires, and the direct threats to structures and life, according to a BCWS presentation to the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board April 21.

It’s possible, said Blackwell, that last year’s wildfire season stressed crew members, resulting in burnout.

Shaelee Stearns, information officer for the Kamloops Fire Centre, said BCWS is having difficulty recruiting and retaining firefighters in the Clearwater area. Just one person chose to return to Clearwater this year. Due to safety concerns, one person cannot operate alone.

In the interim, she said, the Kamloops Fire Centre will deploy crews to Clearwater on an as-needed basis, such as when the fire hazard is high or lightning is forecast.

BCWS is a provincial resource and it shifts crews around as the risk changes throughout the season. Last season, 2,900 personnel from all over the province were working out of the Kamloops Fire Centre due to wildfire activity and hazards in the region.

Stearns added BCWS has interagency agreements with local fire departments and often calls on them to assist with initial attack responses, and will continue to do so.

“Our response times will not change,” she said in an email. “We will continue to follow normal process for responding and positioning crews based on assessing fuels and the current conditions.”

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