February 6, 2017 5:25 pm
Updated: February 6, 2017 7:48 pm

Wildfire near Bella Bella B.C., raises concern

Heiltsuk First Nation

The chief of a village near British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest says members of the First Nations community fought a wildfire on their own this weekend after they were unable to get help from provincial government agencies.

Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett says the fire broke out late Friday on a hillside across from Bella Bella in an area where several power lines are located.

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She says the First Nation was still waiting for a response after spending the weekend trying to contact BC Wildfire, Provincial Emergency Preparedness and Boralex, which operates the power lines.

In an emailed statement, Boralex spokeswoman Lauriane Dery says the flames had been contained by Sunday night and the company hopes to restore power Monday.

Dery says the cause of the fire was unknown, but it followed an electrical failure on the transmission line during a wind storm Friday night.

The BC Wildfire Service said in a news release Monday that a response officer would be sent to the scene.

The Wildfire Service also said the blaze was sparked by power lines brought down during the wind storm.

Slett says power to their community was being supplied by a diesel generator, while residents of nearby Denny Island were on standby to evacuate.

She says storm-force winds of up to 90 kilometres an hour made fighting the fire difficult.

Heiltsuk emergency officials say flames from the fire were low, but burning vigorously near the ground, while the release from the Wildfire Service says no trees have been charred.

Slett says the fire was in an area that is culturally significant and heavily used by the community.

She compared the lack of response to the fire with the sinking of a commercial tug boat that spilled more than 100,000 litres of diesel fuel late last year.

“Just like with the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart, (we) found ourselves in the frustrating position of not having the proper equipment, resources, and training to respond fully to the situation,” she said in a statement.

In a written statement to Global News, Steve Steve Thomson, the Minister of Forests said:

“The provincial duty officer was made aware of a fire on Denny Island via a phone call he received on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 1 a.m. He immediately notified the Heiltsuk First Nation, the Bella Bella fire chief and the RCMP to gain more information about the fire. The RCMP dispatched a boat to take a closer look. The duty officer also subsequently engaged with the power company, BC Ferries and the Coast Guard.

“He remained in constant contact with the Heiltsuk First Nation and agencies over the weekend. The wildfire is determined to have been caused by downed power lines from the windstorm. The wildfire is currently burning at a low intensity and is not threatening any homes. The power company has not indicated any concerns with potential damage to its poles.

“BC Wildfire Service took an overview flight of the fire site this afternoon. There was no smoke visible. The fire was contained to the power line right-of-way.

“While Emergency Management BC is prepared to offer evacuation support if it were necessary, no requests for assistance have been, or are expected to be made by the Heiltsuk or the Central Coast Regional District for this event given its limited consequence.

“February presents less vulnerable weather conditions than hot dry summers would to a wildfire burning outside a community. In this case, the small fire, its location and the winter weather conditions are such that it would not prompt evacuation alerts; there are no people, homes or other infrastructure deemed at risk.

“During the winter months, the BC Wildfire Service is not fully staffed up and it is not feasible to have crews on standby all year-round. I am confident that the BC Wildfire Service acted appropriately. The BC Wildfire Service will continue to monitor the situation and stay in close contact with the Heiltsuk to ensure public safety.”

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