Documents raise questions about review of 2021’s White Rock Lake wildfire

Click to play video: 'Area director calls for public review of White Rock Lake'
Area director calls for public review of White Rock Lake
WATCH: After a freedom of information request failed to turn up any debriefs of the White Rock Lake fire, a local politician is calling for a public review of the destructive blaze – Aug 26, 2022

A freedom of information request about the White Rock Lake wildfire has shed light on resource shortages during the difficult 2021 wildfire season but also raised questions about what the province has learned from the challenges it faced.

A year ago, the southern Interior of B.C. was in the grips of the White Rock Lake wildfire. What started as a seemingly typical blaze in a summer of major blazes eventually ballooned in multiple directions to over 83 thousand hectares and destroyed or significantly damaged over 100 homes in communities from Monte Lake to Killiney Beach.

To give a sense of the scale and scope of the destruction: it takes over an hour to drive from Monte Lake to Killiney Beach and the two communities burnt ten days apart.

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A year later, those who lost homes to the blaze are still putting their lives back together, and many community members still have concerns about what led to the fire getting so big and destroying so much.

While the province has always defended its response to the fire, many of the public questions about what happened remain unanswered.

In October, more than a month after the blaze was considered held, Global News asked the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) whether any internal reviews were being completed on the response to the White Rock Lake wildfire. The wildfire service said it had “competed internal debriefs and After Action Reviews but there will be no specific internal review or report about the White Rock Lake wildfire.”

In November, Global News made a freedom of information request for copies of any documentation of the internal debriefs and after-action reviews regarding the White Rock Lake wildfire.

After multiple delays, more than nine months, and paying a fee of $150, Global News received over 600 pages of documents earlier in August.

However, none of the non-redacted parts of the documents had anything to do with a post-event assessment of what occurred.

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Hundreds of pages were weekly standby preparedness sheets. In them, staff detailed in multi-day increments throughout the fire season the staffing in the Kamloops Fire Centre available to respond to blazes and morning prep call worksheets which appear to summarize periodic staff calls. They are documents meant to keep managers around the region abreast of what’s going on in other parts of the area.

One page simply had a staff member’s email signature on it and two were pages that only contained blank grids.

More than 50 remaining pages were completely redacted or almost completely redacted. Section 13 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act allows information to be redacted if it contains “policy advice or recommendations.” Although some information was also withheld if it could be “harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations” or “harmful to business interests of a third party.”

This leaves the public without an independent accounting of what happened and little clarity about what kind of reviews were completed, and what the government learned from fighting this particularly destructive blaze.

Thompson Nicola Regional District director Ken Gillis, whose area lost 33 homes to the fire, was shocked by the results of the FOI request.

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“There were 600 pages of data that were virtually useless in trying to establish what happened,” Gillis said.

Gillis says, in general, residents have not received an independent account of what occurred or enough information about what the wildfire service learned from the fire.

He believes residents “deserve to know what went wrong and why it went wrong” and a public review is needed.

Gillis argues private assessments of what occurred don’t cut it.

“There is a certain mistrust out there of BC Wildfire. Privately [assessing the fire] is sort of like having the RCMP investigate the RCMP. We’ve got away from that but now it seems like we are having BC Wildfire investigate BC Wildfire and it just doesn’t work,” Gillis said.

“Public reviews are what’s required. They are a public body and surely to goodness they should be accountable to the public especially when the public’s homes are burning down.”

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Gillis also points to the scale of the fire to bolster his argument for a review.

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“I’m just wondering what kind of a fire it takes to warrant a special investigation and certainly if this one doesn’t, it seems to me we would have to have half the province on fire before they thought a special investigation was in order. I think that, in itself, is shocking,” Gillis said.

Shift to a proactive approach

The BC Wildfire Service said the “White Rock Lake fire was the number one provincial priority for most of the wildfire season,” but declined an interview request, saying that “no one suitable is available for an interview on this topic this week.”

Despite the lack of records disclosed, in a statement, the wildfire service said it has learned from the 2021 wildfire season and is making changes.

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“Given the volume of work and the shared nature of wildfire resourcing, areas for learning, improvement and review may transcend any individual incident,” fire information officer Briana Hill wrote in an emailed statement.

The organization said it “can confirm that multiple debriefs and after-action reviews took place following the 2021 fire season” and that “these reviews have significantly contributed to the organization’s current priorities for improvement.”

BCWS says it is “currently undergoing a shift to a proactive wildfire management approach” and that the “significant investments” in wildfire prevention and the BC Wildfire Service in the spring 2022 provincial budget announcement were the result of “clear challenges and opportunities for improvement that were identified through our debrief process.”

“Several areas identified as a priority for improvement following 2021 have been implemented for the 2022 fire season, including an integrated cross-agency planning and decision-making model to support lead agencies in complex emergency events,” Hill wrote.

“Other examples include the integration of First Nations Liaisons on ongoing active wildfire incidents, an Indigenous initial attack agreement model, expanded and integrated structure protection and defence services and improved public information on a variety of wildfire-related topics.”

BCWS added that the 2021 fire season had underscored the importance and accelerated the implementation of independent recommendations made after the 2017 wildfires and floods in B.C.

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s hot 2021 wildfire season finally cools'
B.C.’s hot 2021 wildfire season finally cools

A lack of resources and 'bump and run'

What can be gleaned from the documents is that the Kamloops Fire Centre, the fire administration region where the White Rock Lake fire burnt and which includes the Okanagan, faced an array of shortages of both staff and equipment at various points in the 2021 fire season.

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Dry conditions and a heat dome early in the year set the stage for a disastrous fire season, and the documents make clear that the wildfire service did not always have the resources to respond to it.

Even before the White Rock Lake wildfire was discovered, on July 13, the Vernon and Kamloops Fire Zones were complaining of a lack of resources, crews were being advised that hoses and pumps were in short supply and certain lightning incidents were getting a “modified response due to lack of resources.”

For the week the blaze sparked in the Merritt Fire Zone, the nearby Kamloops Fire Zone noted staffing levels were one of several issues challenging its larger fire suppression efforts.

The wildfire service said the 2021 resource shortages were due to COVID-19 and the extreme fire season.

The organization said multiple agencies were competing for resources and equipment because the “tremendous fire load” was felt across Canada and the western U.S.

BCWS said the pandemic also limited BC’s ability to import out-of-province resources due to health risks.

A week after the blaze sparked, around the time the fire had grown to over 4,000 hectares and was threatening the unincorporated community of Westwold, staff reported “extreme conditions continue” in the Kamloops Fire Centre.

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Another FOI document posted online shows a request for a unit crew for the White Rock Lake fire and another blaze by July 19 was unable to be filled.

Two unit crews specifically mentioned as being available to potentially start on the White Rock Lake wildfire on July 19 were ultimately assigned to the Lytton Complex.

The wildfire service has defended its staffing of the White Rock Lake fire.

The organization said despite the unusually bad forest fuel conditions and the large number of blazes it was dealing with, the White Rock Lake wildfire “was among the most well-resourced incidents of the fire season.”

“Additional resources would have been welcome across British Columbia during the 2021 fire season, however it is hard to say what difference a unit crew (20 people) could have made under the prevailing conditions,” Hill wrote.

Indeed, White Rock Lake was far from the only fire BC Wildfire Service was dealing with. The week of July 19, crews in the Kamloops Fire Centre were also battling other major blazes including Sparks Lake, Tremont Creek and Thomas Creek. On a July 19 fire centre call, the region was reporting eight fires in the last 24 hours and activity levels were said to be “not letting up.”

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Notes from that July 19 call show signs of strain. Staff were told the “bump and run strategy is biting us.” Managers were advised to “invest crews in primary response areas” and told not to “walk away without guarding them.”

“Reiterating that we want all fires out or monitored steadily; a few have got away that we thought were dead or close to it, so continue to monitor fires,” read a point form update from operations on July 19.

The wildfire service said neither this “bump and run” strategy nor a lack of monitoring were factors in the spread of the White Rock Lake wildfire.

Over the next two and a half weeks, fire zones around the region continued to report various shortages: initial attack crews, heavy equipment and at one-point pilots.

By August 5, the White Rock Lake blaze was mapped at over 32,000 hectares. Late that day, it crossed Highway 97 and burnt through the community of Monte Lake.

Four days later, a manager’s update to the whole fire centre acknowledged “critical challenges” and that everyone “can use more crews.”

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“In recent days we have had to exercise our response strategy. There is risk involved with this. Focused on structure and life with resources,” said the point form update.

For the weekend of August 12 to 15, crews were expecting increased winds and fire behaviour but a staff member noted while zones were prepping with available resources, most were unable to meet the desired staffing level.

That Sunday evening, the 62,000-hectare fire turned the sky in the North Okanagan dark red when it should still have been daylight and, overnight, dozens of properties on the west side of Okanagan Lake burnt.

The wildfire service continues to defend its response and says the White Rock Lake fire was “deemed a priority and resourced as such immediately after it was reported.”

“Between July 17 and Aug. 6, there were an average of 103 wildfire personnel, seven helicopters, 32 pieces of heavy equipment and 41 structural protection crew members assigned,” Hill wrote.

“From July 26 to Aug. 6 there were at least 116 wildfire personnel working on the White Rock Lake fire each day, up to a maximum of 194 personnel. From Aug. 3 there were at least 110 structure protection personnel assigned each day, to a maximum of 125 on Aug. 5 and 6.”

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More than two weeks after the west side of Okanagan Lake burnt, on September 2, the massive fire that had terrorized the north Okanagan for weeks was finally considered held. It ended one chapter but opened a new one that is still going on today as residents continue to rebuild their lives and ask what happened.

When asked to explain how the White Rock Lake fire was able to grow so large and destroy so much, the BC Wildfire Service talks about the “explosive fire growth conditions” last year.

The organization said despite an immediate response, “the fire was 20 hectares in size within the first two hours of discovery.”

Below is copy of part of the FOI records received. Global News chose not to publish the entire records as they contained a large number of unredacted phone numbers.

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