'Lied to and let down': Emotions run high in areas ravaged by B.C. wildfires

Emotions are running high in areas ravaged by wildfires in Northern B.C. in what some are calling a breakdown of trust between people affected by the wildfires and fire officials.

Relations tense between people affected by wildfires and fire officials

Verne Tom photographs a wildfire burning along a logging road near Fort St. James, B.C., on Aug. 15. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Emotions are running high in areas ravaged by wildfires in Northern B.C., in what some are calling a breakdown of trust between people affected by the wildfires and fire officials.

Dozens of wildfires continue to burn out of control in the Bulkley-Nechako district where, over the weekend, some residents of Burns Lake staged a protest in an attempt to prevent firefighting resources from leaving town.

"We haven't felt like we are getting the help or service over on the south side to help fight those fires," said Ginger Moyah, a Lake District resident who organized the protest.

"A lot of people feel like we've been lied to this whole time and let down."

Firefighters working for a Fort St. John-based company had offered sprinklers, pumps and hoses to fight fires on the Burns Lake fire's south side, but the B.C. Wildfire Service turned them down, arguing the equipment wasn't appropriate.  

Protesters gathered in Burns Lake, B.C., on Saturday after firefighters were told their gear wouldn't be appropriate to fight fires burning south of the village. (Carla Lewis)

Series of disagreements 

The weekend protests are just the latest in a series of disagreements over wildfire management, from initial concerns that insufficient resources were given to stop the fires earlier to residents defying evacuation orders.

"For whatever reason, there is not necessarily the trust that [residents' homes] will be protected and so they feel obligated to stay behind," said John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes and former parliamentary secretary for forestry.

He said something significant needs to be done to rebuild the relationship between residents and officials. 

"There needs to be a serious review, perhaps even a royal commission on how the province fights fires to be able to rebuild the trust but more importantly to ... be able to have a better response," Rustad said.

Ash covers the ground in an area burned by the Shovel Lake wildfire, near Fort Fraser, B.C., on Aug. 23, 2018. Six days later, the 2018 wildfire season would officially become the province's worst on record with 12,984 hectares burnt. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

More communication needed 

Rod Holland, the chief administrative officer with the Village of Fraser Lake, has seen the divide and lack of trust between those impacted by the flames and fire officials in his community this summer. 

He said he thinks the frustration from residents comes from a mixture of "heavy stress" from the fires and residents sometimes mistakenly feeling like they're not receiving accurate information.

"WildFire B.C. was very good about talking about the days that the aircraft couldn't take off due to smoke or heavy winds," Holland said, as one example of a common misperception. 

"If you were reading their briefings on a daily basis, which we supplied daily, you had answers to most of those questions."

More of B.C. has burned in wildfires in 2018 than any year on record. (@CONAFOR/Twitter)

Battling fires and public opinion

Kevin Skrepnek, the chief fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, agreed that transparency and communication are key to keeping the public's trust.

"Sometimes, from the outside looking in, people can question why decisions are made or they can start to get frustrated," he said. 

"This is a very technical business and I think sometimes we don't do as good a job as we could enunciating how some of those things work."

Firefighter Christian Garcia, of Mexico, moves a burnt tree to get at hotspots in an area burned by the Shovel Lake wildfire. MLA John Rustad says firefighters are "out working their hearts out for this" but didn't have enough initial support. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Skrepnek said better communication is something the wildfire service, along with other agencies, is working to improve — but it's not the only priority right now.

"While all this is going on, and you've got these public perception issues, that's very important and needing to be addressed, we're also at the same time fighting the fire and needing to get out emergency information," he added. 

With files from Daybreak North and Andrew Kurjata. 

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