Slocan evacuees thankful, but want to be able to do more

·6 min read

People affected by evacuation alerts and orders in the Slocan Valley have been told the fight against the fire near their homes is meeting with some success.

“The fire is going quite well,” says Ryan Gow, the incident commander overseeing the fight on the Trozzo Creek fire. “I know it can be scary, the morning we woke up and saw it right there on Lemon Creek, going around that shoulder… but I am cautiously optimistic and very pleased with the progress we’ve made.

“We’re definitely not out of the woods yet, that weather is going to return… but this is a good time for us to gain a few feet on the fire.”

Gow made the comments at a community meeting held Saturday, July 24. About 75 residents came to hear an update on the fire’s status and voice their concerns about the situation.

Gow told the crowd that crews were able to take advantage of the low wind and smoky conditions to build machine guards and hose-lays up a forest service road, and to use other techniques to guide the fire away from populated areas closer to the valley bottom.

Dense smoke has reduced fire behaviour, Gow said, and allowed heavy equipment to construct a guard along the northern ridge of Trozzo Creek.

They are also working to extend a machine guard toward the Winlaw Creek drainage to hold the fire on its southwest flank. Work to hold current containment lines on the west perimeter of the fire continues. Gow said they were monitoring fire growth to the east (Baldface Creek) and south (Sproule Creek).

Officials said the operation has benefitted from a decent amount of resources in a time where firefighting crews across the province have been hungry for support.

“I can tell you from an RDCK perspective, this fire has had the vast majority of resources in our area since the get-go,” said Chris Johnson, the head of the RDCK’s Emergency Operations. “The fires in Edgewood and Fauquier – Michaud Creek and Octopus Creek – those have not had nearly the same resources.

“In this extraordinary, historic year, that’s how things are working.”

Protecting themselves

One of the issues community members raised was wanting the ability to return to their homes before the fire arrives to try to protect them as much as possible.

The Trozzo Creek evacuations happened in the evening (something BCWS said they try to avoid), forcing many residents to leave without putting up fire protection devices or doing other work to prepare their homes.

“Why can’t we help our neighbours, or help ourselves to secure our homes? We know the danger is up there, but it’s not close enough we can’t get away,” said one man. “We took our families to safety, we came back, we got sh*t for doing that – hey, I’m here to protect my home, to help you people do your job.”

“A lot of these properties are a minute from the highway,” pointed out another man. “We are responsible adults, if we have the information… but we recognize the fire on the ridge, the wind isn’t blowing this way, we can make decisions.

“Given the situation as it is now, I don’t see a risk for me. None of us are sleeping there, I don’t see the risk of our families staying at a safe place, and for us to go and reduce the risk to our properties.”

But officials pointed out it rarely turns out that easy.

“I get the idea of wanting to stay and defend your home,” said Johnson. “But what has been found time and again is that, because of the structure wildfire uses, people die when there is poor communication.”

While people may plan to use common sense and leave when the situation gets more dangerous, Johnson noted the issuing of an evacuation order means the situation is already dangerous.

“That is to try to manage public safety, to allow responders to respond and not have to worry about anyone else,” he added. “If you all of a sudden need support from a first responder because things have gone wrong, then first responders are putting themselves in harm’s way because of decisions you’ve made.”

Communications

Residents also raised concerns about communicating updates – the Trozzo ‘fire of note’ on the BCWS website had not been updated in a day or two at the time of the meeting.

Staff said they were aware of the problem and it would be corrected.

One woman spoke of talking to emergency workers during the nighttime evacuation, and no one being able to give her any information about the situation.

“We are adults, we can make decisions, informed decisions, but we need someone to tell us so we can settle our systems and move appropriately. We left our house without the right things because we got scared,” she said.

Others reacted angrily to Columbia Wireless pre-emptively removing its internet transmission equipment for the area, leaving residents with no source of information. (See story, ‘ISP defends decision to pull service during fire,’ elsewhere in this paper.)

Residents also asked why they had to go to Castlegar to access emergency services, wondering why a team and some support services weren’t set up in Winlaw itself.

“We need something real, right here in our community, where we can fill up our water, talk and cry, where a woman can come and get her pads or diapers for her baby, we need something here for our families,” she said. “And Castlegar is WAY too far.”

Officials pointed out that Emergency Support Services crews, volunteers who help process and find resources for evacuees, is in trouble for staffing.

“I’ll be frank. The majority of our volunteers are 70+, and we’re losing them as they become exhausted, or because of their fear of COVID. So we have fewer trained volunteers to provide support in communities,” said Johnson, asking people to consider volunteering for the organization.

The area with the most services is Castlegar, prompting officials to direct people there. As well, it doesn’t make sense to set up an evacuation centre in a community that itself might end up being evacuated, Johnson noted.

Thanks, but not much comfort

Overall, residents said they appreciated the efforts of firefighters and emergency workers to date, and gave them a round of applause several times during the meeting.

And officials thanked Winlaw residents as well. A cache of cold drinks and snacks has been left at the access to one of the fire areas to provide for thirsty and hungry crews, among other acts of kindness.

But officials left the meeting on a sober note, warning that things aren’t necessarily going to get better with this fire soon, and the evacuation orders and alerts may last a while.

“This is the weather that is there. Fortunately, the coming wind event is out of the south and west, moving it away from things,” said Johnson. “But this is a historic weather pattern we’re in. So the wildfire risk will always be primary in making that assessment, and security.

“That’s the best I can give you now.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

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