08/15/2013 11:43 EDT | Updated 10/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Winlaw Firefighters Quit In Protest of Chief's Suspension

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WINLAW, B.C. - The entire volunteer fire department of a community in British Columbia's Kootenay region has resigned after their fire chief was suspended for refusing to provide traffic control at a town hall meeting days after a massive jet fuel spill forced 1,500 area residents from their homes.

The volunteer firefighters in Winlaw, a small town of about 400 people in southeastern B.C., say after spending hours going door-to-door and helping with evacuation efforts, their members wanted to attend the meeting to get information with the rest of their fellow residents. The meeting, they say, was not an emergency and not part of their jobs as volunteers, and they add that they weren't insured to do such work, anyway.

The district, however, says fire Chief Jon Wollenberg was suspended for three months for insubordination.

The resignation of the entire 19-member volunteer crew means the town is without its own firefighting services, though the regional district has said volunteers from nearby Passmore and Slocan will respond to calls in Winlaw.

"Obviously, the response time is going to be somewhat delayed, given that the two other fire departments are on the fringes of the community north and south, but both fire departments and fire chiefs have agreed to provide that coverage," said Brian Carruthers, chief administrative officer for the Regional District of Central Kootenay.

Carruthers said the Winlaw firefighters have been invited to a meeting Thursday night with regional district officials to discuss the controversy and the hope is there will be long-term solution, whether the Winlaw firefighters go back to work or the other two departments are restructured to take over the area the Winlaw crew once covered.

Joe DeSousa, one of the firefighters, said the volunteers tendered their resignations Tuesday night after learning Wollenberg had been suspended.

"For me to come back to the hall right now, I need to see my chief in the hall with a full apology because he's done nothing wrong," DeSousa said in an interview.

On July 26, a tanker truck carrying 35,000 litres of jet fuel tumbled off a logging road into Lemon Creek. The fumes forced evacuations involving some 1,500 people in the 24 hours that followed. A recently filed lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court says an 80-kilometre stretch of shoreline along a creek and two rivers in the southeast B.C. area was wiped out.

DeSousa said the volunteer firefighters were on the front lines, going door to door to alert people to get out.

"From the time I got off work on Friday afternoon to the time I was actually able to try to get some sleep, I'd put in a 28-hour day," said DeSousa, whose day job is as a heavy mechanic.

"And that goes for the rest of the hall that was able to attend to help with the evacuation."

Meanwhile, a nearby forest fire had the crew on alert in case it began to threaten homes, he said.

A community information meeting was planned for July 30 — the following Tuesday — and DeSousa said the fire chief was ordered to ensure the volunteers were available to do traffic control.

DeSousa said Wallenberg, who was not available for an interview and was instead referring calls to DeSousa, refused the request on the grounds that the volunteers were available for emergencies and this wasn't one. The firefighters also believed they weren't insured to offer such services, and, finally, they all wanted to attend meeting as citizens who were also impacted by the spill.

DeSousa says Wallenberg was told to have his crew at the meeting working traffic or to resign by noon the next day.

Wallenberg defended his actions in a statement that was posted to the online Nelson News.

"I do not believe this is warranted, given the lack of an emergency," Wallenberg wrote.

"I believe that demanding a volunteer fire department respond to a non-emergency goes against the principals of what this group has volunteered to accomplish. I recognize that due to the seriousness and risk of what a fire department encounters, it is critical that we have a chain of command and any objections to an operation be voiced in an incident debriefing and not at the scene of an incident.

"However, if no emergency exists, I do not believe the regional fire chief should demand actions from volunteer firefighters."

Carruthers, the regional district's chief administrative officer, said he did not want to get into the details of the dispute, calling it a personnel matter, but he said the discipline was taken in "due process" and he hoped a resolution could be found quickly.

"The disciplinary action was taken regarding a failure to take orders and insubordination. There's all kinds of opinion out there with respect to whether that request was reasonable and warranted."

The dispute has Winlaw residents more exercised over what led the firefighters to quit than the response time resident will get now that they're gone.

"The grand majority of opinion doesn't even involve anything with public safety," Chris Sapriken, a community resident and friend of Wollenberg, said in an interview.

"They are all about the decision was made and how it seemed unfair that Jon was given this disciplinary measure."

Sapriken noted there were other options. Volunteer firefighters from other communities that were not involved in the evacuation could have directed traffic or the district could have paid a company for the service.

DeSousa said the affair has left lingering damage.

"It shouldn't be a 'these guys and those guys.' We're supposed to be a cohesive unit, a team," he said. "I understand the hierarchy, I understand the order from the top. But lets be honest. We're a volunteer group."

— By Wendy Cox in Vancouver

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