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  • Volume Eight, Number six: September 2003

    Fighting the Flames of Destruction: A Salute to the Heroes: BC’s Firefighters.

    Marco Procaccini

    FirefightersWhile slash and burn economics are the current order in BC politics, with many people saying they are the worst in BC’s history, an even more consequential slash and burn is going on the in BC Interior, as the worst year for forest fire damage ever recorded continues to take its toll.

    As of Wednesday evening, over 3000 fires have been burning in BC’s forests, according to the office of the BC Fire Commissioner. Although BC, with its heavy coniferous forestlands, is no stranger to forest fires, this year’s amount of damage and the level of effort needed to fight these blazes are the worst since the province began keeping records on forest fires.

    “It’s one of the worst since anyone started recording these things,” says Rob Brett, president of the BC Professional Firefighters Association. “At this point over 244 houses have been lost in Kelowna alone, with damages maybe running into the tens of millions.”

    The BCPFA are the firefighters working for municipal and regional fire departments across the province. They have been working side by side with members of the BC government and Service Employees Union, who work for the Ministry of Forests, fighting these blazes since a state of emergency in the central Okanagan was called last week by the federal government. In addition, numerous volunteer firefighters and citizens’ groups are helping out as well.

    “After the fire commissioner asked for audits of fire departments’ staffing and equipment, approvals were given to send in help, and fire departments started sending guys in,” he said, adding that municipal fire crews all over the province have been dispatching people to help the forest service workers on the front lines. “We’ve got people coming in from Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Kamloops and Prince George on their days off to fight these fires and then go back home to work their regular shifts.”

    As of Wednesday, Brett says the blaze that has been consuming Kelowna is currently contained. However, that could change at any moment, since a mere simple shift in wind direction could unleash the flames and push the fire toward the city.

    Already several Interior towns, including McLure and Berriere, have been, at least in part, lost to the fires, and although evacuation measures for Kelowna are on hold, since the fire is currently contained, people are being told to be ready to move at any time.

    But despite the immense property loss, injuries among both firefighters and community residents have so far been mostly minor, Brett, says, and he attributes this to the determination of people to work together. However, reports of exhaustion, high blood pressure and minor heat stroke are becoming more common, as firefighters work long hours, often will no breaks, to keep the flames in check.

    In the past week both Prime Minister Jean Chretien and BC Premier Gordon Campbell arrived in Kelowna to assess the damage and offer additional funds to pay for combating the blaze.

    But even while the flames still blaze, concern is growing among both firefighters and community residents about the huge cost of fighting the fire, what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it, and the danger of government cuts, especially provincial, inhibiting the ability of public service workers to respond to such emergencies.

    Brett says so far he has not seen any serious infringement on current firefighting abilities due to Liberal cutbacks to the forest service. But he again attributes this to the courage, skill and determination of both union and volunteer fire crews and community residents to pull together in a quick and orderly fashion. He adds there can be no underestimating the threat that government cuts to such services pose to the public.

    “So far no one has been inhibited by the cuts in doing their jobs, but that I think is because of the terrific response of communities across the province,” he said. “The people doing the cuts across the province should have their eyes opened by what’s happened in Kelowna as to the risks the are taking. This (mass fires) can happen anywhere in BC at any time, and no one should forget that.”

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