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North Shuswap residents demanding changes to wildfire response in B.C.

‘…no other community should have to go through what we went through’
A view of part of the area where the planned ignition was conducted on Aug. 17, looking east towards Scotch Creek. North Shuswap resident Jim Cooperman claims fire from the ignition travelled down the powerline through dead brush left from slashing in the spring and blew east to Celista and south to Scotch Creek. (Jim Cooperman photo)

Though the meeting was held in the North Shuswap, it was for all British Columbians.

On Thursday evening, Nov. 23, the North Shuswap Community Hall in Celista was packed for a meeting hosted by resident Jim Cooperman.

Titled Shuswa p Firestorm: The Last Straw, the meeting offered an opportunity for the public to see a PowerPoint presentation Cooperman has provided as evidence for the B.C. Forest Practices Board’s investigation into BC Wildfire Service’s planned ignition that took place around 4 p.m. on Aug. 17 in an attempt to prevent the spread of the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire (later renamed Bush Creek East when the two wildfires combined).

“When I started talking…you could hear a pin drop,” said Cooperman, noting the crowd was there to take in the information he’s gathered with help from others, including registered professional forester Bruce Morrow who, after viewing the planned ignition site on Oct. 3, shared his own findings with Cooperman.

Morrow determined the ignition failed to meet basic standards of controlled burning in at least five ways. One of those had to do with control lines. Morrow found no identifiable control lines at the east or west ends of the burn.

“To conduct a controlled burn, the entire area planned for ignition must be surrounded by control lines, non-burnable surfaces, natural or man-made, that can be used to control fire spread,” Cooperman said.

Morrow also raised concerns with the ignition area being too large, the burn-off being “hotter than the wildfire,” the hydro line serving as a poor fuel break, and the ignition being conducted prior to a forecasted wind event.

In October, the Forest Practices Board (FPB) announced it is investigating the planned aerial ignition used in response to the spread of the wildfire.

“BCWS (BC Wildfire Service) has been notified and FPB is arranging to go on-site this month,” said the FPB in an email. “Interviews with relevant people will follow. A panel will consider the investigators’ findings, and recommendations may be made.”

Following Thursday’s meeting, Cooperman said he’d received numerous responses from individuals wanting to support his ongoing efforts.

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

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“We’ve set up a defence fund, the North Shuswap Defence Fund, and people are contributing to that, and that’s going to pay for a number of things,” said Cooperman. One of those things is a freedom of information request for BC Wildfire Service communications regarding the ignition.

Cooperman has also launched a petition, also called Shuswap Firestorm–The Last Straw, at Addressed to the B.C.’s Ombudsperson, the chair of the Forest Practices Board, the premier’s Wildfire Task Force and the BC Auditor General, the petition raises several complaints around the wildfire response in the North Shuswap.

They include “inadequate response to the initial fires, and mismanagement during the weeks that followed,” the planned ignition being conducted prior to a windstorm being a “case of gross negligence,” a lack of “adequate warnings to the North Shuswap residents about the danger from the rapidly approaching fire,” and government enforcement of evacuation orders “which did not recognize the skills, capacity and efforts of many residents who remained to fight the fires after all BCWS personnel left the area…”

The petition pushes for the changes needed in the province to prevent these problems from occurring again.

As of 4 p.m. on Nov. 24, the petition had 1,741 signatures.

Cooperman said the next step is getting the Office of the BC Ombudsperson to launch its own investigation.

“You know what’s extraordinary too about all of this, is that this has happened many times before, what happened to us,” said Cooperman. “It happened in Monte Lake because they didn’t put the fire out when they should have…and they decided to light a backburn and the backburn backfired and burned $15 million worth of homes in Monte Lake. Did much come out of it…?

“It’s a systemic problem within the BC Wildfire service and it’s not just the lighting of backburns, it’s how they operate.”

North Shuswap, Electoral Area F director Jay Simpson said he went to Thursday’s public meeting expecting fireworks. What he saw was a community still coming to terms with the wildfire, still “hoping and looking for some kind of acknowledgement from the province, I think more than anything else, just to say it didn’t go quite as planned and we’re sorry about that.”

“That’s really what we want to get out of this,” said Simpson. “Jim’s presentation was called The Last Straw, and he’s basically saying this is the last straw, things have got to change because no other community should have to go through what we went through.”

Cooperman said the meeting was recorded and expects a video of it will soon be up on YouTube.

Lachlan Labere

About the Author: Lachlan Labere

Editor, Salmon Arm Observer
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