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Local cops/fire crews serve as unsung heroes this wildfire season

Three of the four Castlegar firefighters deployed to Salmo over the weekend.

We’ve all seen the bomber planes and the bucketing helicopters overhead, and most of us have seen photographs in social media of ground crews working during what continues to be a State of Emergency due to wildfires in B.C.

What some people may not realize, however, is how many unsung heroes are going above and beyond the call to protect residents and support BC Wildfire Service crews during a trying and very dangerous time – including local police officers and fire departments.

Trail RCMP Acting Sgt. Devon Reid explained there is an enormous amount of policing required in an evacuation zone: roadblocks and traffic control, ensuring homes/businesses are secure and protected from looting, ensuring no one has been left behind … the list goes on.

“We’re not actually fighting the fires, obviously,” Reid said. “As you can imagine, in a small detachment there aren’t enough officers available for all that, so we have to bring in outside resources.”

Reid said members from detachments across the region are giving up their days off and holidays to pitch in, ensuring full, around-the-clock police coverage both here and in wildfire-stricken areas.

Castlegar top cop Sgt. Laurel Mathew said officers are lending a hand in any way they can – even feeding farm animals whose owners have been evacuated.

“We have been since the start (of the wildfire season),” Mathew said. “Whatever they need is pretty much what we’re doing. Everybody is so taxed … we’re doing our part, just like everyone in B.C. right now.”

In fact, at the time of this interview, Mathew said she had two members who had already cancelled much-needed vacation time with their families to volunteer for 10 days in the evacuation zones.

Acting Staff Sgt. for Central Kootenay Darren Oelke said he’s impressed at the 110-per-cent being offered by local RCMP.

“I’m so proud of the members we have,” he said, adding residents need not be concerned that local policing will be diminished by these efforts. “We never, ever fall below minimum staffing levels.”

Meanwhile, through the RDCK Emergency Operations Centre, our fire departments have banded together to create the Kootenay Task Force Team.

Castlegar Fire Chief Sam Lattanzio said that, since July 31, his department has had a standby crew of four firefighters and one engine ready to respond within 30 minutes of being called out.

They have been deployed in this capacity three times in the past five years: in 2003, 2015, and finally, this past weekend. Deputy Chief Duane Monsen, Captain Stuart Ady, and firefighters Josh Rilkoff and Matt Howell were deployed to Salmo to provide structural fire protection, manage pre-planning, assist in FireSmart-ing homes/businesses, and more.

This is a particularly significant offering on the part of volunteers firefighters, most of whom have full-time jobs and commitments elsewhere – and yet there is never a dearth of volunteers to man the crews.

Ootischenia, Blewett and Beasley Volunteer Fire Departments have been at the McCormick Creek fire, helping with sprinkler protection, since it started.

Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Chief Dan Derby said his department has an engine, a tender and six firefighters available, Creston has had an engine and four firefighters and Lister has had a tender and two firefighters available to deploy within 30 minutes since July 31. As of this weekend Grand Forks, Nelson, North Shore and Christina Lake fire departments are all on stand-by as well.

“It was all stood down on Sunday night because the fire danger rating went down, but because we have this all in place, we can put together a stand-by team on very short notice when it goes back up,” Derby said. “This is all being coordinated through the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

“People want to sign up to help,” he said. “It’s been easy to find volunteers to be ready to deploy within 30 mins.”

Right now, BC Wildfire Service has more than 4,000 employees fighting active fires across the province.