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North Shuswap firefighter says people bringing food, water to crews are being blocked

‘At the end of the day, we’re not going anywhere,' he said. "We’re here to fight'
Flames can be seen on the mountains above Scotch Creek on Aug. 18, 2023.

After an exhausting weekend of working to protect his community, a North Shuswap firefighter is now speaking out.

In a Monday morning (Aug. 21) interview with the Salmon Arm Observer, “James” (who asked that his full name not be used), said he is a firefighter with a Columbia-Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) department in the North Shuswap, before sharing his concern that authorities are preventing donated supplies from being delivered to the area.

“My wife is over there right now, trying to send me supplies to refuel me, to keep me going because we’ve been running 172 hours on five hours of sleep in no less than 20 life-or-death situations with 300 feet of flames coming at me …,” James said. “My wife … she’s trying to put boxes of socks and underwear because I can’t do laundry … and cigarettes and energy drinks onto a boat and send it over to me. It’s on one of our friend’s boats and a trailer is trying to back it in and they won’t let them unload it.”

North Shuswap communities, including Lee Creek, Scotch Creek and Celista, have been under an evacuation order since Friday night (Aug. 18) when what is now referred to as the Bush Creek East wildfire was pushed in a southeast direction by intense winds.

People are strongly advised to leave areas under an evacuation order. Emergency Management BC warns those who do not leave are placing themselves and others at risk.

James credited fellow firefighters from his department and other locals who stayed behind with protecting protect structures, first from the spread of Bush Creek East and then subsequent spot fires.

He explained those who continue the fight, such as CSRD firefighters and private citizens, are finding their efforts hindered by authorities.

“I was running in my personal vehicle in my firefighting gear with an SPU specialist … and the police were stopping us and not letting us go through …,” James said. “We’ve only got 15 feet [fire truck] and we’ve got 30 firefighters, so we’re running personal vehicles to get guys around and now the police are stopping us.”

CSRD administrator and Emergency Operations Centre director John MacLean acknowledged the exhausting efforts of North Shuswap firefighters, but said they are receiving food on a regular basis, as well as rest periods as required under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

MacLean urged James to share his concerns through the chain of command.

“We have a command structure. If they need more resources, they have every opportunity to request them,” said MacLean, who stressed CSRD firefighters provide an essential service and are exempt from the evacuation order.

On Monday afternoon, the CSRD issued a media release, stating it understands residents wanting to stay in an evacuation order area to protect their properties. However, the release added, “we must stress that this decision puts both you and our tireless responders at high risk and directly conflicts with the issued evacuation order.”

North Shuswap resident Angela Lagore said she and her family, the Bischoffs, are also concerned with safety and loss of property, which is why they elected to stay behind and fight.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going anywhere. We’re here to fight the fires and without my dad and that whole crew doing what they’re doing, and building the fire guard and trying to protect the community with machines, there would be even more destruction,” Lagore said. “This whole community would be gone.”

Lagore runs The Hub, a restaurant in Scotch Creek. She said plans were in place to use The Hub as support space to provide those on the frontline of the firefighting efforts with cooked meals. But that plan was dropped after she and Electoral Area F director Jay Simpson attempted to retrieve supplies being delivered by boat and were told by RCMP they required a permit to do so.

“Instead of treating this situation like people are heroes doing this stuff — here’s some fuel, here’s some water — it’s constant roadblocks and it’s causing chaos for absolutely no reason,” said Lagore, noting everyone working to protect the North Shuswap are physically and mentally exhausted.

For those who need to evacuate via the Seymour Arm route, the CSRD said facilitators are available to assist with their evacuation route.

“We cannot emphasize enough the critical importance of evacuating areas under an evacuation order,” the regional district stated. “Your safety and the safety of our responders are our top priorities. Please heed the evacuation orders for your own well-being and that of your community.”

Despite all these challenges brought by the wildfire, James said he is determined to stay and continue the fight.

“It’s our community,” he said, overwhelmed with emotion. “I’m not going to let my neighbours’ houses burn to the ground … We’ll all fight with our face to the flames and our backs to the wall until we can’t no more.”