By Christopher Roden
Close to two hundred local residents were in attendance at the Ashcroft Community Hall for the information meeting hosted by the Village of Ashcroft on July 25. The meeting had been convened in the aftermath of the Elephant Hill fire, and as a response to questions and concerns raised by residents at an earlier meeting on July 22.
At the meeting were mayor Jack Jeyes and councillors Doreen Lambert, Barbara Roden, and Alf Trill of the Village of Ashcroft; Derek Williams and Rob Schweitzer of the BC Wildfire Branch; Sgt. Kathleen Thain of the Ashcroft RCMP and Staff-Sergeant Sheila White from Merritt; Ashcroft fire chief Josh White; Jason Tomlin, the emergency services supervisor of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD); Kayla Pepper, the disaster planning and response coordinator for Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management Southern BC; representatives from the BC Ambulance Service; and Randy Diehl, a former chief administrative officer of the City of Kamloops, who moderated the meeting.
Following brief opening remarks by Jeyes, who introduced the moderator, the meeting was handed over to Diehl, who began by emphasizing what a beautiful place we live in: “A piece of paradise we are lucky to have.” He continued, “In view of recent events, there is understandable anxiety and lots of unanswered questions. This was one of the most bizarre fires seen in B.C.”
Schweitzer confirmed this, saying that he had never seen a fire like this one before, nor had many of his crew. The fire—which started late on the evening of July 6—jumped the fireguards at 11:45 a.m. on July 7, and Kamloops Fire Centre was immediately requested to send aircraft. The fire went from 2 hectares to 80 within an hour, and by 9 p.m. on July 7 was 4,200 hectares. “Getting people out of harm’s way was our only priority.”
The manager of the Boston Flats trailer park questioned why it was that the only warning given came at 2 p.m. on Friday, July 7, via the RCMP. Schweitzer replied that the fire spread incredibly quickly, and that calls were immediately made to crews, the RCMP, and local government.
When the manager stated that she felt they “fell through the cracks”, Diehl assured her that the officials involved would all have debriefings about the event. “They’ll learn from the process. No two disasters are alike.”
There was obvious concern about the current status of the fire, and there were assurances regarding daily updates via Internet, message boards in local communities [in Ashcroft the message board is at the post office], and through the TNRD.
Someone asked why the Martin Mars water bomber had not been deployed to fight the fire. Schweitzer replied that it was not available before August, and it was felt that the eight aircraft deployed—helicopters with water and fixed-wing craft with retardant—were capable of putting down water and retardant faster, and that it was more efficient to use smaller planes with a faster turnaround time. “Planes buy time and slow things down, but it’s boots on the ground that put out fires.”
A question was asked about the cause of the fire. Schweitzer said that the cause is currently under investigation, but that it had been difficult to access the site because of downed power lines. “It was not lightning; it was human-caused,” he said, adding that when a cause has been determined there can be both a criminal and a cost-recovery process, whether the fire was started by an individual(s), organization, or company.
Comment was made regarding the lack of a location for information. The response was that there was no one going to the Village office, and therefore the decision was made to erect a table at the fire hall, where people were going for information. “People were going to the fire hall, so council made the decision to stay out of the way of the firefighters but be there to answer questions,” said Jeyes.
It was then asked why no Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) had been set up for residents. Tomlin explained that an EOC is only set up when an Evacuation Order is in place, and that Ashcroft was out of danger before an Evacuation Order could be instituted. “The fire had moved on.”
Questions were asked about back-up generators to supply power: for example, to the village office, so that notices could be printed. No answers were available, but Jeyes said this is now under consideration by the Village.
“How do we alert people?” was another common question. Diehl pointed out that in his 37 years of public service—which includes 30 days as part of the EOC in Kamloops during the 2003 wildfires there—he has come to understand that many people do not read things, and that what it needs is community involvement. It was pointed out that there needs to be an emergency plan to cater for situations where there is no access to information via Internet and phones.
Asked why the RCMP could not have been deployed to get warning messages out into the community, Thain replied that Ashcroft is a small detachment and resources are short. On July 7, only four members were available to be on duty evacuating people in high risk zones, and one of those members lost his house during the fire.
Several residents indicated that they did not know that when the power goes out, the village immediately goes to Stage 4 watering restrictions (essential use and fire suppression only; no watering lawns, having showers or baths, minimal flushing of toilets, etc.). White said that a during a short break in firefighting, a firetruck with someone on a loudspeaker did go around with a message about conserving water, but then had to go back to fighting the fire.
“We got the message out as quickly as we could,” he said, “but the firetrucks can’t be used as an information source during a fire emergency.”
White was asked why the village’s firetrucks and tender were not used to fight the fire when it started on July 6. He replied that the fire started in rough terrain that was only accessible by a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and the trucks would not have been able to access the area.
He went on to describe the fire, and the firefighters’ actions in combating it, noting that teams needed to retreat several times because of the high risk. He received a standing ovation from the crowd when he finished.
Mayor Jeyes noted, in response to a question as to why there was not more media coverage of the Ashcroft situation, that once news outlets learned that Ashcroft was safe and no structures had been lost within the village they were not interested in our story.
Various other matters were raised, including the location of muster stations; alternative routes of egress in case the main access to an area was cut off; and why North Ashcroft residents were not the first ones notified of the Evacuation Alert.
One resident noted that everyone in the village needs to be a part of the solution, and that we need to work together. Another agreed, thanking everyone at the table for their public service and their work for the community. A member of the fire department said she had seen lots of wonderful moments. “We came together as a group, and people did so many amazing things.”
Diehl concluded by saying he was hearing anger and frustration. “This will require residents and city hall to step up to the plate.” Members of council said they would be meeting to discuss the response to the fire, as well as the evening’s comments, questions, and concerns.