VANCOUVER - The first water-dropping helicopter was en route to a fast-moving forest fire in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley nearly half an hour after it was first reported, according to a timeline compiled by the provincial government, which says an initial review has found the response was fast and well co-ordinated.
The fire started in high winds just outside of Peachland on Sept. 9, causing 1,500 residents to flee and destroying four houses.
Newly released audio recordings of RCMP radio dispatches detailed the initial response, as Mounties on the ground called for help and at times appeared frustrated that firefighters were not on the scene sooner.
But the B.C. Forests Ministry says although its review largely confirmed the account gleaned from the audio recordings, it also indicates the response by provincial firefighters was appropriate in the circumstances.
"An initial review by all responding agencies shows an excellent co-ordinated response. The ministry has received numerous compliments for its fast response to this fire," the ministry said in a fact sheet released this week.
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"Given the aggressive behaviour of this wildfire, public and first responder safety was of paramount importance. No injuries were reported during this incident."
The fire was first reported at 2:55 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9, and emergency officials quickly confirmed it was just outside the jurisdiction of Peachland's volunteer fire department, leaving the initial response to the provincial wildfire management branch.
A forest officer was in a truck driving to the scene by 3:10, according to the ministry timeline.
By 3:22, about 27 minutes after the fire was first reported, the first water-dropping helicopter was in the air and en route. The chopper's travel time to the fire was estimated to be about five minutes.
At roughly the same time, a duty officer with the Peachland Fire Department responded.
The forest officer requested Peachland's help at 3:27, and the two vehicles from the department were dispatched within minutes. The first Peachland Fire Department member was on the scene at 3:34, according to the ministry — 39 minutes after the fire was first reported.
Meanwhile, the fire was growing rapidly in strong winds..
The fire moved one kilometre in just half an hour — or 33 metres every minute, according to the ministry fact sheet.
At one point, sparks and embers capable of starting smaller fires — a process known as spotting — were being carried up to 500 metres ahead of the main fire.
At 3:59 p.m., a bird-dog plane, which makes observations and directs air tankers carrying fire retardant, flew overhead. An air tanker dropped the first load of fire retardant at 4:16, according to the ministry.
The ministry said it would also conduct a full review into the response, as it does with all significant fires.
Neither the provincial wildfire management branch nor the Peachland Fire Department have targets for response times.
The Forests Ministry said such guidelines aren't practical for provincial firefighters because of the size of the province. Instead, the ministry noted 92 per cent of all wildfires are contained before they reach four hectares.
The Peachland Fire Department, which required a request from the province before leaving its own boundaries, also said response time targets don't make sense, because response times often depend on where volunteers are when a fire breaks out and how quickly they can reach the fire hall before responding.
The ministry fact sheet noted the wildfire management branch has an agreement with Emergency Management B.C. to co-ordinate responses when fires are near populated areas. In such cases, a response that involves multiple agencies is handled through a "unified command structure," which was put into action in the Peachland fire.
The ministry noted that agreement allows municipal fire departments to respond to fires outside of their jurisdiction if requested by the wildfire management branch.
The Peachland fire started about two kilometres up the road from the end of the Peachland Fire Department's jurisdiction.
Elsie Lemke, chief administrative officer with the District of Peachland, said a major issue in such cases is insurance, including personal and corporate liability and workers' compensation.
"We're covered for responding to fires or other emergencies within our boundaries," said Lemke.
"The only time we're covered to go outside out boundaries is when we're called by the appropriate organization that has the right to request us or when a neighbouring community calls and asks for our help when it's under a mutual aid (agreement)."
There are a number of homes and acreages along the road between the district and where the fire started, near a park on the side of Highway 97C.
Lemke noted in 2010 the Regional District of Central Okanagan planned to explore the possibility of funding fire protection in the valley.
When the regional district asked the province for help in paying for such a study, the government said its grant funding had been used up for the year. Lemke said Peachland has not heard anything further about the issue since then.
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