Size of wildfire group in Shuswap leads to creation of ‘small city’ within a city

Under clear, sunny skies on Aug. 24, 2021, the Salmon Arm Fire Camp on 10th Avenue SW houses a fluctuating population of 150 firefighters and service providers. Crews work 14 days on and then four days off, if the wildfire situation allows it. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)Under clear, sunny skies on Aug. 24, 2021, the Salmon Arm Fire Camp on 10th Avenue SW houses a fluctuating population of 150 firefighters and service providers. Crews work 14 days on and then four days off, if the wildfire situation allows it. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
A portion of BC Wildfire’s Fire Camp in Salmon Arm on Aug. 24, 2021 containing crew tents as well as medical support and ‘ranger’ tents housing a dining room, a gear-drying area, a physical therapist’s table and more. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)A portion of BC Wildfire’s Fire Camp in Salmon Arm on Aug. 24, 2021 containing crew tents as well as medical support and ‘ranger’ tents housing a dining room, a gear-drying area, a physical therapist’s table and more. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
BC Wildfire’s Jeff Miller, logistics, Nicole Bonnett, information officer and Bruce Janning, logistics section chief, take time out to provide details about the Salmon Arm Fire Camp. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)BC Wildfire’s Jeff Miller, logistics, Nicole Bonnett, information officer and Bruce Janning, logistics section chief, take time out to provide details about the Salmon Arm Fire Camp. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
A physical therapist’s treatment area is set up at the Salmon Arm Fire Camp, a trial this year to help people with new and old injuries. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)A physical therapist’s treatment area is set up at the Salmon Arm Fire Camp, a trial this year to help people with new and old injuries. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
The smoking area at the Salmon Arm Fire Camp is well-protected from fire danger. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)The smoking area at the Salmon Arm Fire Camp is well-protected from fire danger. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Everyone’s a VIP at the Salmon Arm Fire Camp dining room. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)Everyone’s a VIP at the Salmon Arm Fire Camp dining room. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)

Within the boundaries of Salmon Arm sits another small city.

The Salmon Arm Fire Camp opened its gate, its doors and its tent flaps on Aug. 14, and a fluctuating population of about 150 people – firefighters and service providers, took up residence.

The number changes because crews rotate, working 14 days on, then taking days off. Four days, if the fire situation allows.

In an Aug. 24 tour of the four-acre transformed farmer’s field, Bruce Janning, Nicole Bonnett and Jeff Miller of BC Wildfire talked about the camp.

“You have to consider this like a small city. We have all the services – power, sewer, water and all that. It’s more of a mobile operation. If we had to pick this thing up and move it, we could,” said Miller, who specializes in logistics.

Owner of the farm land, longtime Salmon Arm resident Jerry Thompson, said he rented the site to help out the fire program.

With parking at the 10th Avenue SW end of the property and the firefighters’ tents at the other — round pods of colour nestled together against a backdrop of Mount Ida — the little city looks welcoming under sunshine and blue skies.

Janning, logistics section chief and a second-generation wildfire fighter, injected a little realism into the vision. Those tents aren’t so homey after sleeping in them for two weeks, he said.

Firefighters at the camp are from around B.C., including Salmon Arm, as well as Alberta and Quebec.

Miller said BC Wildfire chose to set up camp in Salmon Arm because of the sheer size of the (fire) complex and the town’s central location to the fires.

With the Rapattack base in town, the camp was able to store equipment there.

Firefighters in the camp have been fighting several fires: Mabel Lake, North Adams, Momich, Seymour Arm and Two Mile.

Miller said they don’t want crews having to drive too far to a fire, both for safety as well as to maximize time on the fire lines. He added that a couple of smaller mini-camps are being worked on in order to get crews closer to some fires.

Janning noted crews could potentially be flown in, but then weather can affect getting them in or out.

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Asked if the Salmon Arm site has worked out well, Miller said “it’s an absolutely fantastic site. The City of Salmon Arm has been very obliging and very helpful.”

Regarding noise, he said camps are set up to minimize it.

“It’s always in consideration of the crews. Their rest, their sleeping. That’s our main objective here. We’re in support of crews, and the people that live in this camp.”

However, he added, crews work so hard, little will wake them up.

“If you drive a Mac truck through here, they’ll probably sleep through it.”

Along with the sleeping tents are larger ‘ranger’ tents. One is a dining room for those who want to eat inside. The duct-taped signs outside the flap door read: “VIP Dining Lounge. Open to Everyone.”

One larger tent with clothes lines inside has heated air blown in to dry wet gear. Another has a long row of communications equipment, from phones to radios being charged.

Miller said crews communicate in all kinds of ways now, not just portable radios. The main method, however, is a forestry radio repeater system.

“We have our own private radio network in B.C.”

Something being tried out this year, particularly with the long fire season, is a physical therapist who can assist crew members with old or new injuries.

Laundry is done for firefighters – they pop their dirty clothes in a bag with their name on it and, voilà, it comes back clean.

There are a variety of washroom facilities, from washrooms and showers to porta-potties. Hand-washing stations are everywhere in order to promote COVID-19 protocols as well as prevent the spread of any illness.

Security is in place 24/7 and crews adhere to a curfew.

Few recreational facilities in town are used by crew members, Miller said, because they’re either too busy or too tired.

Breakfast is served at 5 a.m. Crews are given big bag lunches, while fruit, vegetables, baked goods, water, juice and coffee are always available in camp. 

Looking somewhat out of place in the camp is a ‘Smoking’ sign, which overlooks a plywood platform equipped with large tin cans, water and a fire extinguisher.

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Asked about the mood of crews, information officer Bonnett said it’s been a long summer and people are tired. She said some people miss their families, “but at least among BC Wildfire itself, they’re fairly tight-knit groups and with the weather changing (in this fire complex), it feels a little bit more like you’re winning more and more every day.”

The residents and businesses of Salmon Arm have been incredibly supportive, according to the trio.

The signs on the fence across the road from the camp have been noticed, as have people honking and waving as they go by.

Miller said everywhere they go in town, people express their appreciation. Residents stop them on the street, while businesses go out of their way to support them. Janning noted with a smile they were once mistaken for Home Hardware staff because of their red shirts.

They are not able to accept donations at the camp, but they still appreciate those offering them. They suggest people direct their support to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. Also, Emergency Support Services is often aware of the needs of evacuees.

Miller said BC Wildfire is in Salmon Arm to fight fires, but also to support the community.

“Anything we can do, like Bruce said (regarding the site). We want to leave it better than when we came.”


martha.wickett@saobserver.net
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