As British Columbia declared a state of emergency over raging wildfires this week and welcomed firefighters from Australia, New Zealand and Mexico, contract firefighters in southern BC sat idle, waiting for the provincial government to call on them to help.
It’s not that they don’t want to help — they are begging the government to deploy them.
But the BC government says it uses an approved list of contractors across the province, with specific wildfire training, and it will call upon them “when it makes sense to do so and where they are needed.”
“We use the best and closest resources for fire operations,” BC Wildfire spokesperson Ryan Turcot told VICE News in an email. “When our own personnel are stretched to capacity we can call upon other resources from local contract crews, or our national and international partners.”
Subterranean Fire Service, an industrial structural fire fighting company in Maple Ridge in the Fraser Valley, has 32 firefighters and six trucks sitting idle. They have checked their equipment and are ready to roll, but the BC government won’t return their calls. After last year’s intense wildfires, the company expanded its services to be ready for this year’s fire season, and notified the BC government months ago that they were fire ready, and have wildland fire experience.
“They won’t call on us to help,” Derek Forgeron-Hall, technical rescue director for the company, told VICE News, “We call them almost every day and they keep saying, okay, we will call you back, and they never do.”
“And you hear the province is in a state of emergency now, and you’re just letting equipment sit there and not be used?”
“I think most people are scared to say anything to the media because they don’t want to chop themselves off at the knees,” he added.
The company’s frustration comes through in its social media posts. “Pull the trigger BC so we can help save homes,” the company posted on Facebook on Wednesday.
The company is not on the government’s approved contractor list, but Forgeron-Hall said that shouldn’t matter when the province is facing a state of emergency. He said the government asked them to register on their site, which they did. They explained to him that they offer competitions every two years, and that they had bids from last year and weren’t sure if they would take on new bids this year. “But if you’re declaring a state of emergency, why are you not pulling in every resource you’ve got? If you’re bringing firefighters from New Zealand, why are you not using your local resources?”
He acknowledges that the firefighters from New Zealand and other countries are ground crews with specific wildfire experience, while the company’s firefighters have structural experience.
He said his company’s firefighters are “career firefighters” with NFPA 1001 and 1002 training, and the company’s fire director was previously a city fire chief with 30 years of firefighting experience. “It’s not like they can say we’re underqualified. ...We’re not just a bunch of guys who bought some trucks.”
“All wildfire firefighters employed by the BC Wildfire Service are highly trained professionals who meet or exceed national standards in their training,” explained Turcot, with the BC Wildfire Service. “Because fighting forest fires is dangerous and exhausting work, we are obligated to use professional wildland fire fighters who are trained, physically fit and properly equipped. In accordance with the requirements under Workers Compensation Act, untrained firefighters are not employed on B.C. firelines.”
He added that while "it's not unheard of for personnel with a structural fire background to be called upon to fight wildfires," they do require training that specifically prepares them for wildfire scenarios, such as the S100 and NFPA 1051. “The NFPA 1001 and 1002 on their own do not qualify someone to fight wildfires,” he said.
Forgeron-Hall said all his workers had the S100, and the BC Wildfire Service told them if they were needed they could bypass the two-year bidding process.
“It’s very frustrating,” Forgeron-Hall said. “Especially when you hear that people are losing their homes and we could have done something to help.”
Last week, a wildfire destroyed 27 buildings in Telegraph Creek in Northern BC. On Tuesday, Martin Louie of the the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation told Global News they could not get information from Wildfire BC and were left on their own to fight a wildfire as it crept closer to the 300-person community. The nation’s healing camp, used for addictions recovery, went up in flames on Tuesday, according to a tweet from CBC’s Angela Sterritt.
Forgeron-Hall said his trucks and workers could be in northern BC overnight.
“What if we could have saved those structures?” Forgeron-Hall asked. “Structures are burning down, communities are feeling that they’re being ignored, and then you have equipment fueled up, ready to go, and it’s not being used.”
He argues that the government is relying on municipal firefighting, which means they are sending equipment and workers out of their cities, leaving their own catchment areas at risk.
Gord Ditchburn, president of the BC Professional Fire Fighters Association, which represents municipal firefighters, told VICE News the first priority of municipal fire services is the home community, and they will first make sure they have adequate resources there before releasing people and equipment to fight wildfires elsewhere. It’s a careful, calculated risk that involves looking at weather and forecasts, he explained.
He acknowledged there is always a chance a city could send resources away, only to put their own community at risk. “I would never say never because you never know what could happen.”
“I figure that what’s going to happen is when it gets completely out of control, then they’re suddenly going to call us,” Forgeron-Hall said.
Cover image of Subterranean Fire Service via Facebook.