Peachland Fire Response Time Slowed By Jurisdictional Boundaries, Resident Says

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Cars stop by the side of a highway near Peachland, B.C. (CP)
Cars stop by the side of a highway near Peachland, B.C. (CP)

VANCOUVER - It was a dry, hot Sunday afternoon, with winds whipping through British Columbia's Okanagan Valley at speeds as high as 60 kilometres an hour, when a lone RCMP officer found himself staring at fire in a ditch along the highway into the lakeside community of Peachland.

"If this doesn't get under control, it's not going to be good," the unidentified officer told his dispatcher over his police radio.

"We're helpless here without ... a fire truck tackling it."

The officer's prediction, heard in audio recordings of RCMP radio traffic obtained by The Canadian Press, was eerily accurate. In a little more than an hour, the fire raced three kilometres through nearby forests and fields, eventually forcing 1,500 people to flee their homes and destroying four houses.

The audio recordings, archived by the website RadioReference.com, offer the first glimpse into the initial response a week ago to what became B.C.'s worst forest fire of the season, as RCMP officers marshalled an evacuation while they waited, at times impatiently, for local or provincial firefighters to arrive.

The fire was reported a few minutes before 3 p.m., and the officer who appeared to be first on the scene arrived almost immediately.

"We got a fire here, a grass fire/forest fire," the officer said, less than a minute after the first mention of smoke over the RCMP radio frequency.

Several officers and their dispatcher then discussed the size of the fire. One Mountie estimated it was about 15 metres by 15 metres, while another told the dispatcher to ensure the provincial Forests Ministry was contacted.

Three minutes after the fire was first reported, the dispatcher informed the officers that because the blaze was just outside of the District of Peachland, the community's fire department wouldn't be responding.

"It is out of (Peachland) Fire's area and they have advised Forestry," the dispatcher said.

The fire was growing and RCMP members were already blocking traffic off the highway into the area.

Eight minutes into the ordeal, police on the scene were growing increasingly concerned the fire was moving dangerously close to houses. By 12 minutes, one officer estimated the fire was moving one or two metres every 30 seconds.

More roads were blocked off, and the growing number of officers at the scene were busy telling residents in the path of the fire to get out.

At 16 minutes, one officer asked his dispatcher where the provincial firefighters are.

"Did forestry give you some sort of ETA?" the officer asked.

"10-10," the dispatcher replied, the RCMP radio code for "negative."

"Did you relay to them the importance of this before it gets out of hand?" the officer said.

"10-4," the dispatcher responded.

Shortly after that exchange, an officer reported an encounter with a worker from the Forests Ministry, but there were still no firefighters, either on the ground or in the air, on the scene.

"I just had a pickup truck come up. He's from Forestry, and he just told me that they're sitting in the hangar waiting for them to come see whether it was (unintelligible) to get on this, so I don't know where it fell apart here," the officer said.

And then, from another Mountie: "It's right into the trees here. She's going full-bore now."

At 23 minutes, an officer noted a Peachland Fire Department truck had just arrived on the scene, though it wasn't clear when the department started to fight the fire.

And at roughly 33 minutes, the recordings include the first mention of an asset from the provincial wildfire branch.

"Copy that the helicopter is on the scene dropping water?" the dispatcher asked.

"10-4," an officer replied.

None of the agencies involved would confirm any of the details of the initial response, such as when the first fire truck, helicopter or tanker arrived to actively target the fire, but the recordings suggest it was as soon as 23 minutes or as long as 33 minutes.

The volunteer Peachland Fire Department, the District of Peachland, the Regional District of Central Okanagan, the RCMP and the Forests Ministry each said it was too early to put together concrete timelines, since they are still responding to the fire, which continues to burn but is now considered fully contained. They each promised those details would come later.

Forests Minister Steve Thompson said he, too, did not have a complete timeline detailing the response, but he praised the work of the crews that fought the fire and credited them for saving untold numbers of homes in extremely difficult conditions.

"In talking to local government representatives and talking to the emergency operations centre, the wildfire management branch and the ministry response received compliments for the speedy response," Thompson said in an interview.

"Given the nature of the fire and where it started, and how rapidly the situation was changing, I think the response times were very good."

Thompson said a review would be completed assessing the response, as with any significant fire.

It also wasn't clear how the Peachland fire compares with typical response times.

The local fire department doesn't set targets for response times, because they often depend on where volunteers live and how fast they can reach the fire hall to gear up. The Forests Ministry couldn't confirm whether the province has its own targets, but noted 92 per cent of wildfires are contained at less than four hectares.

Peachland resident Darren Goulet said he saw the smoke and drove to the fire soon after it started, and he was surprised to only see a single officer at the scene.

When he returned home, a five-minute drive away, he watched and listened for fire truck sirens, tankers or helicopters, and he's concerned with how long it took them to arrive.

He suggested the response may have been slowed because the fire started outside the District of Peachland, so the town's own fire department — which he described as one of the best-trained departments in the province — wasn't immediately sent to fight it.

"The big problem out here is that we've got boundaries for firemen," said Goulet.

"Because of these boundaries— and it's not just here — a fireman cannot just go and take care of it quickly."

None of the agencies involved would say whether jurisdictional boundaries played a role in the Peachland fire, insisting the response will be reviewed later.

But it is an issue that has been repeatedly raised in B.C., particularly after the 2003 fire season, which was the worst in the province's history.

That summer, the province responded to 2,500 wildfires that together scorched 260,000 hectares of forests and burned 334 homes. The largest fire that year was in Kelowna, where 239 homes were destroyed and 27,000 people were under evacuation.

A government-ordered report examining the entire season identified jurisdictional issues as a significant concern.

"Some fire departments do not have authorization to attack out-of-boundary interface fires," the report said.

"Some fire departments do not have effective mutual aid/automatic aid agreements with neighbouring communities. It is unacceptable that emergency agencies are prevented from working together. Other jurisdictions have found effective means by which this can occur and so should British Columbia."

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