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VIEWPOINT: North Shuswap residents heroes after the firestorm

Shuswap Passion by Jim Cooperman
Jim Cooperman works on a spot fire near his well shed on Aug. 19, 2023. (Louie Jagla photo)

By Jim Cooperman


This is the second part in a two-part series.

On August 19th, the day after the firestorm, I returned to find that our home survived, and the fire had only reached the green hillside that had been watered.

There was no time to clean out the freezers and fridge because we had to work on a spot fire that threatened our well shed and, if it grew larger, our neighbour’s home. A BCWS team arrived, but refused to help because they were tasked to only attend to fires immediately threatening structures. Thus, we had to use buckets of water from our pond to douse it.

Putting out spot fires is akin to playing “whack a mole,” as no sooner are the flames put out than they rise again, because these fires are underground in roots and stumps. Fortunately, there were fire department trucks and crews from all over the province and two showed up that day to work on our spot fire, along with one of our many local heroes that remained behind to protect homes and properties. That spot fire persisted for nearly a week, and although I had to leave, my neighbours monitored it and contacted both locals and more fire trucks who continued to wet it down.

We will be forever grateful for the heroic efforts our neighbours did to protect properties and homes by working day and night putting out spot fires, including one that was enormous.

Throughout the North Shuswap, hundreds of residents remained behind or returned to fight fires including our CSRD Area F director, Jay Simpson. These heroes are not average citizens, as many are contractors, loggers and ranchers with years of experience working in the woods, including many who have fought fires for years. They utilized many dozens of home-made fire trucks with tanks, pumps and hoses, as well as heavy equipment to build fire guards. Some worked collaboratively with BCWS personnel.

Despite their essential service to our community, these local fire fighters were under strict orders to remain on their properties and dozens of police and Conservation officers, including some from Vancouver, were brought in to enforce the evacuation order. Roadblocks were set up along our highway at bridges and spike belts were used to prevent vehicles from evading the checkpoints. Thankfully, many local boat owners from communities across the lake helped transport people and bring in supplies, until police and conservation officers began monitoring the lake with their watercraft and threatened to seize boats and issue fines.

Yet, despite the strict rules and heavy enforcement, our resilient and resourceful community firefighters found ways to obtain food and supplies, including fuel for their equipment and water for their hoses. Thus, countless homes and properties were saved from the fires, but they could not protect every house and a few more structures were lost to spot fires a few days after the firestorm.

The BCWS was very challenged by this firestorm, as they had to evacuate their camp in the afternoon of August 18th, when the fire raged through Squilax, burning many of the firefighter’s tents before destroying 85 homes, cabins and businesses on the reserve. The fire then jumped the Little River and raced up Squilax Mountain and into Turtle Valley, while some band members including Skwlāx te Secwépemc Kúkpi7 James Tomma huddled under the bridge.

Read more: Viewpoint: 2023 brings cruel irony to back-to-the-lander Shuswap environmentalist

Read more: VIEWPOINT: Shuswap deputy fire chief grateful for support during wildfire fight

It took BCWS a few days before personnel and equipment could return to effectively work on the fire. In some areas of the community, including Celista, there were no government firefighters for five days and thus only locals were there to protect homes. Finally, after one week, BCWS recognized there was a need to utilize locals to help with firefighting efforts. After locals organized a 10-hour training course, approximately 30 residents were paid to work 12-hour shifts side by side with BCWS staff to put out spot fires, yet they were still denied food, supplies and fuel.

It was unconscionable for government authorities to enforce these strict evacuation order regulations, while not recognizing that if it wasn’t for these rural residents many more homes would have been destroyed. One might hope a review of the Shuswap 2023 firestorm will result in much needed changes, so that in the future residents will be able to legally protect their homes and properties as is the case in other jurisdictions around the world.

The BC government has yet to implement previous wildfire review recommendations, but the disastrous Shuswap firestorm should finally provoke the BCWS to be both more proactive in putting out fires when they are small using all the best technology available, and to put a far greater effort at reducing fuel loads surrounding rural communities. Given that statistics clearly show how the annual area in British Columbia burned by wildfires has increased 20 times compared to the pre-year 2000 average, and this year the total is already over 2.4-million hectares, it is long past time for urgent action.
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Gibsons firefighters douse a spot fire on the Cooperman property. (Jim Cooperman photo)
Loading supplies in Chase to deliver to the North Shuswap. (Lisa Atkinson photo)
Celista famers Dean Smith and Everett Loberg action a persistent spot fire. (Janis Smith photo)