Lessons to be learned from Rock Creek fire response

Beneficial use can, and hopefully will, be made of the mistakes by learning from them to ensure they aren’t repeated, writes Fred Marshall.

by Fred Marshall

While the Rock Creek fire was a very unpleasant event, it was not an extraordinary one.

With ever increasing temperatures, reduced rainfall and the absence of natural fires for nearly 100 years this fire was, in many ways, long overdue. Without the relatively recent intervention of settlers to the area and their descendants who have become ever more active and effective in suppressing fires, fires occurred on a regular basis, approximately every 35 years.

While many of the earlier fires started naturally via lightning, many were likely also set by the natives to improve wildlife habitat, grazing for their horses and to stimulate berry production.

Fire Events: Shortly after the fire started on Thursday afternoon evacuation orders and Highway closures were implemented.

The three levels of the evacuation orders are Alert, Orders and Rescindment. They are set by the Emergency Operations Center (the EOC) under the authority of the regional district.

The appropriate levels are determined in collaboration with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) and Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.  Once set, they are administered by the EOC and enforced by the RCMP.

The alert means that the danger levels are threatening and residents should be ready to evacuate and any animals moved to safe areas.

The order means that residents must evacuate as there is imminent danger. While this is a mandatory order it is not enforced. If and when a person evacuates is, therefore,  entirely up to them.  The exceptions to enforcement pertain to minors or incompetent persons the evacuation of whom may be enforced.

As the regional district is in charge of emergency operations, it has a responsibility to protect the people under its jurisdiction. By issuing the evacuation orders, they are fulfilling their due diligence by ordering the people to evacuate.

Those refusing to evacuate inherently accept the responsibility for their own safety with no negligence accruing to the regional district

However, once a person leaves their property, they cannot return until allowed to do so via rescindment of the evacuation orders or ad hoc authority by the incident commander, the MFLNRO person in charge of the fire-fighting operations or the EOC.

Unfortunately, on the Rock Creek Fire, the RCMP did enforce this order and some people were forced to evacuate under threat of arrest.  One person, a female, was actually arrested and physically removed, in handcuffs, from the home she and her husband were trying to protect.

Fortunately they were able to return a bit later and were successful in saving their house and several outbuildings etc.  Both were well experienced in firefighting and had two escape routes identified in case their efforts were unsuccessful. They also had over 20 horses in barns that needed to be either protected or released.

Rescindment: The evacuation orders are rescinded and people are allowed to return to their properties.

Commentary: While the local RCMP may have had good intentions in enforcing the evacuation orders, they acted quite independently and with some arrogance and disrespect for the local people and without due regard for their rights.

Such actions, instead of reassuring and supporting the local people, added undue anxiety, frustration and some well justified anger to their already stressful situations.

This should not have happened; some apologies to the local people are in order.

When evacuation orders are given, the rationale behind them must be well understood and they must be enforced with some discretion and not blind absolutism. As noted above, they are generally not enforced.

On the Rock Creek fire, there were too many instances where people with legitimate reasons to enter the closed area were, in most instances, refused access without good cause

Also, under subsection E of the Emergency Program Act the EOCs can “authorize or require any person to render assistance or a type that the person is qualified to provide …..etc.”

Shortly after the fire started and was threatening homes and other buildings many local, and well qualified and well equipped residents expended near heroic efforts in building fireguards, protecting structures and helping people in need.

Without their action many more structures and improvements would have been lost and the fire likely grown even larger than it actually did.

Once they left the area they were no longer able to provide such assistance. The effective and judicious use of these people could and would have strengthened the efforts of the ministry personnel yet, although legislation allows for local assistance, it was never authorized. It likely should have been.

Similar instances occurred when people attempted to move livestock, left their home to get gas for their generators or fire pumps to further protect their homes or just to get groceries and, with few exceptions, were not allowed either into the fire or back to their homes!

If a homeowner was returning from work to their home and knew the fire was threatening it and that their spouse was there defending it, there are likely few people that would not go through the roadblock to reach their home and spouse and, if deemed safe to do so, stay and defend their holdings.

Restricting people from doing so would be very inappropriate.

Highway Closures: Highways 3 and 33 were closed at  on Aug. 13 and the evacuation orders issued simultaneously. Highway 3 was reopened on Aug. 19 and Highway 33 at 6 p.m. on Aug. 21.

While the initial closure of both Highways 3 and 33 was appropriate, both could have been safely opened sooner especially, and at least, to local people. Or both highways could have been strategically opened earlier to all traffic with pilot cars if or as necessary.

It is incongruous when hundreds of firefighters, some of whom are on their first fire event, are allowed to travel the highways and local roads, often to protect homes and fight the fire when local residents, many of whom are very experienced, are well equipped and have excellent knowledge of the local access routes are not allowed to travel these same routes and/or protect their own homes.

These highways are the life-blood of the local communities and the longer they are closed the more the affected communities suffer. People or contractors can’t get to work, residents can’t return to their home even if they left temporarily to visit a doctor or purchase supplies as noted above.

Tourists and others who use the highway are either stopped or incur huge expenses to complete their journey. Local businesses can’t get or deliver product e.g. gas, oil, food, etc. For example, a local egg producer had to use prodigious efforts to get his eggs to market.

Also, the longer properties are unattended the more subject they are to theft and/or vandalism.  Unfortunately there are some very aggressive and brash thieves in the area. For example, as the ministry fire camp was being set up in Midway, some lumber stacked on site for their camp was stolen during the night shortly after it was placed there!

It is also contradictory and incongruous when local residents are restricted from staying or accessing their properties with the intention of protecting their structures and/or animals while the ministry and the regional district support, with millions of dollars, the implementation of the Fire Safe program.

Under this program, residents and communities are encouraged and often provided with training and financial support to “fire safe” their homes and property. The main objective of this work is to provide a “defensible space” wherein one can safely and effectively prevent their home from catching fire.

If people are forced to leave their homes or prevented from getting to them, then the very intent of the Fire Safe program is thwarted as the people are not allowed to defend their defensible space.

As noted above, the MFLNRO and the regional district, supported by millions of dollars, have contradicted themselves by not allowing the people to protect their homes as previously encouraged.

Or, at the very least, they were thwarted by those enforcing the evacuation orders and highway closures in an overly strict manner.

It is especially incongruous when, even several days after the evacuation orders were rescinded, that ministry fire personnel were visiting local people and advising them about the Fire Safe program and encouraging them to participate. Hmmm?

Work for local contactors: Before Highway 3 was reopened, several outside contractors were brought in and cut down several trees along both Highway 3 and 33.

This work should have been offered to the local logging contractors who had the qualifications and capability to do so. It is very disconcerting to observe local work going to outside contractor when the local contractors are sitting idle because of the fire situation and highway closures.

Lessons to be learned: As with any disaster mistakes are going to be made; as noted above, this was true with the Rock Creek fire. However, beneficial use can, and hopefully will, be made of the mistakes by learning from them to ensure they aren’t repeated.

Obviously the main jurisdictions involved in these events need better training (both in the relevant legislation and the application and enforcement thereof—especially the evacuation procedures) and more effective coordination and collaboration among their activities.

Hopefully several information and debriefing sessions will be held to achieve such learning. These sessions should involve everyone involved in and/or affected by the fire and a summary report with recommendations prepared.

We must be better prepared for future disasters. The climate changes threaten to not only repeat such events but exacerbate them. A flash flood and/or severe erosion events could easily be the next such occurrences in our area with more fires and/or a severe drought to follow next summer.

Summary: One thing that was very evident from the start of the fire and ongoing was and is the outpouring of helping, caring, giving, sharing, praying and loving given by virtually everyone in some way or another.

There is no doubt that this approach will continue into the future and will always be here as an inherent part of our place. It makes one very proud to be a member of the Boundary community.

Also a heartfelt thanks to the ministry-directed firefighting crews. They did a great job and are making sure the fire is out before they leave. Much appreciated.

And not to be forgotten are the similar generous actions exhibited by the many outside people and organizations that came, some from considerable distances to help out.

They gave, and are continuing to give, freely and generously helping in whatever way they can.  Overwhelming and very much appreciated. They broadened the proud feeling to that of being a very proud Canadian! Well done.


Boundary Creek Times