Residents who refused to leave a B.C. wildfire evacuation area are firing back at provincial officials, who they say haven’t done enough to protect their properties.
The massive White Rock Lake fire, burning between Kamloops and Okanagan Lake, has destroyed multiple buildings, and forced a series of evacuation orders and alerts in the last 72 hours.
On Friday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth chastised residents who wouldn’t leave the area, saying they put first responders at risk.
“When it gets too hot and I’ve got to go, I’ll go,” resident Dan Speller told Global News from the side of Highway 97 on Friday night, with flames burning on the embankment behind him.
“But no politician or bureaucrat is going to tell me to go. And I don’t appreciate being called a fool or stupid because I stay and save my house and my livestock.”
Speller is one of a number of area residents critical of the province’s response.
He and his neighbours allege the BC Wildfire Service was too slow to attack the fire when it first broke out, allowing it to grow to a size where it could no longer be controlled.
Speller and his neighbours, along with an out-of-province wildfire crew, spent the night working to prevent the flames from crossing the highway.
“We’re doing it all on our own, except for a crew of Alberta firefighters (who) are the only ones helping. We’re hauling the water, my kids are hauling the fire hose,” he said.
“We just saved a house over here. Everything that I have is invested here. And I don’t have a big fat paycheck every month or a big fat pension when I’m finished. If I don’t save it, I’m too old to start over again.”
Officials have confirmed that a number of structures were lost in the Monte Lake area, but have not given an update on the scale of the damage.
A Global News camera in the area observed at least 15 homes destroyed in the Paxton Road area.
The BC Wildfire Service insists it responded seriously to the fire from the start.
“Upon detection of the wildfire, we had crews on, helicopters on,” fire information officer Forrest Tower told Global News, adding the fire was about 100 hectares in size at detection.
“It was very aggressive fire behaviour, was already a large wildfire when we were able to get crews to it.”
Tower said the fire was burning in challenging terrain amid extremely dry and combustible fuel, due to weeks of unseasonably hot weather.
“There are times, as we’ve seen with this fire, where it’s significantly aggressive fire behaviour. It’s just unsafe to put firefighters ahead of that fire,” he said.
“So we do what we can to make sure it doesn’t affect communities as much as we can. But at some point, Mother Nature is just too much for humans.”
The now 55,000-hectare White Rock Lake fire was first discovered on July 13.
On July 14, the BC Wildfire Service said it was 300 hectares in size, and was being actioned by a crew of six firefighters and a helicopter.
The following day, wildfire officials acknowledged that due to limited resources, they were “unable to commit to all new ignitions” around the province.
A wildfire service update two days later listed the White Rock Lake fire as 2,500 hectares in size, with four firefighters, four helicopters and nine pieces of heavy equipment on site.
By July 26, when the fire had grown to 12,500 hectares in size, the province’s response had increased significantly, with 139 firefighters, six helicopters and 35 pieces of heavy equipment.
The fire continued to grow until on Thursday, driven by strong winds, it breached Highway 97 and tore through the Monte Lake area.
Speller is convinced that if the fire had been tackled aggressively in the first days, his neighbours’ homes would still be standing.
“They have to hit these fires at the beginning. They let them get big. There’s no controlling them when they get big. When they’re a little fire, you’ve got to hit them hard,” he said.
“The people who are making the decisions don’t know nothing about fires or nothing about the land. Leave it to the people who know the land. Leave it to the loggers, the guys who are in the bush all the time. Leave it to us.”
— With files from Doyle Potenteau
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