More residents who defied evacuation orders in the fire-devastated Monte Lake area are speaking out about what they feel has been a insufficient response by wildfire crews and unfair demonization by provincial officials.
The White Rock Lake fire tore through the area on Thursday night, destroying multiple homes and structures. An official assessment of the damage has yet to be released.
Rob Bouchard, whose home was among those that burned to the ground, returned to the fire zone Saturday and said he’s seen no BC Wildfire Service crews in the area.
“There’s no other help, no outside help. It’s just people who live here running around tirelessly trying to put out fires,” he said.
“People have been screaming for help. Where’s the air tanker support? It’s just excuse after excuse. It’s just really disappointing.”
On Friday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth publicly scolded people who had stayed behind, after firefighters and first responders were forced to conduct tactical evacuations Thursday night as the fire flared up and leapt Highway 97 — comments he repeated Sunday.
“Firefighters had to go in and rescue them. It meant diverting firefighters and equipment from the fire and it almost ended very tragically,” he said.
Residents who stayed in or have returned to the evacuation zone have spent the last three days hauling water in tender trucks and trying to protect homes from embers and hotspots.
Many expressed anger at Farnworth’s comments and said if they hadn’t stayed to protect their property, no one else would have.
“It was only residents dealing with every fire,” Bouchard said.
In an audio update posted to the BC Wildfire Service website Saturday, the fire’s incident commander said aircraft and heavy equipment were working on the fire’s flank in the Paxton Valley Road area, north of Monte Lake.
It’s an area where Global News cameras witnessed at least 15 fire-ravaged properties.
Russ Bouvier and a crew of four other locals who have been finding and extinguishing flareups in the valley bristled when asked about the wildfire service’s response.
“Do you see them? You’re here. They’re not here, they haven’t been here all day,” he said Saturday.
“We’ve been dealing with this non-stop. We lost another structure this morning just because there’s no one here. There’s what, five of us? … I have not talked to one B.C. fire guy in what, three days?
Other residents Global News spoke with expressed frustration that wildfire crews contained the fire when it first broke out on July 13.
The BC Wildfire Service said it deployed an initial attack crew and a helicopter as soon as the fire was discovered. At the time, it was estimated to be 100 hectares in size.
It has since grown to an estimated 55,000 hectares.
On Sunday, Farnworth rejected accusations from residents in the fire zone that crews were too slow to tackle the flames, or were throwing anything less than their best effort at it.
“The BC Wildfire Service was on this fire within 30 minutes of it being called in and they’ve been fighting it ever since,” he said.
“It was a very aggressive fire that expanded very quickly. More and more resources were brought in as they were needed. They also had to do tactical evacuations of people in the area.
“They have resources, they have air support, they have all the equipment they need and have been doing an amazing job.”
On Sunday, the BC Wildfire Service said cooler weather had stalled the fire’s growth somewhat overnight.
It continues to grow modestly to the north, northeast and southeast, the fire service said, and in the west, it had grown to within a few hundred metres of Okanagan Lake.
Amid improved weather conditions, evacuation alerts related to the fire in Armstrong and Vernon were rescinded.