British Columbia

Kamloops farmer says he holds B.C. government accountable for White Rock Lake wildfire losses

Ted Blackwell, a dairy farm owner in eastern Kamloops, B.C., has been lucky enough to have had his property emerge intact from the raging White Rock Lake wildfire. But many of his neighbouring ranchers were not so fortunate —  and Blackwell is blaming the province for their losses.

Ted Blackwell says fire could have been controlled with locals helping, but gov't says that's too dangerous

Ted Blackwell on his dairy farm in eastern Kamloops, B.C., in 2018. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Ted Blackwell, a dairy farm owner in eastern Kamloops, B.C., has been lucky enough to have had his property emerge intact from the raging White Rock Lake wildfire.

But many of his neighbours were not so fortunate —  and Blackwell is blaming the province for their losses.

"They [B.C. Wildfire Service] did not go after these fires immediately and I don't know if they don't have the capabilities or they have a policy or agenda, but I do know that a lot of the [private] contractors were either not called or told to stand down when they were ready to help," Blackwell told CBC's David French.

Blackwell, whose farm is located about 35 kilometres northwest of the White Rock Lake fire, says he and his neighbours noticed the blaze beginning to develop on July 13, but the province told them to stand down.

"Nobody [other than B.C. Wildfire Service] was allowed to fight it," Blackwell said. "They [were] being threatened with being charged if they even tried to protect their own place, and they [told] you to evacuate and [told] you to get out of the way for the [firefighting] professionals."

Hundreds of people were ordered to leave the Monte Lake area on the evening of Aug. 5,  just one day after an evacuation alert was issued due to the growing wildfire.

Government says response was immediate

Deputy Forests Minister Rick Manwaring said the provincial fire service promptly and appropriately responded to the fire when it was first reported in mid-July.

"The first report of this fire was made at 3:46 p.m. on July 13. Our first initial attack crew arrived within 30 minutes, and this is pretty standard.

"It was already displaying Rank 4 fire behaviour and this [was] very aggressive. We don't put people in front of Rank 4 fires," Manwaring said. "What we do is make recommendations for evacuation alerts and orders to get people out of the way."

The White Rock Lake wildfire northeast of Merritt, B.C. on July 25, 2021. (B.C. Wildfire Service/Twitter)

According to the B.C. Wildfire Service, Rank 4 is a highly vigorous surface fire with passive torching of trees, while the highest rating, Rank 6, is an extreme and aggressive fire, with candling of trees — one that produces a dominant smoke column that can influence the fire's behaviour.

Manwaring said the province used structure protection strategies on properties in the Monte Lake area to counter a Rank 4 fire, but the protection couldn't withstand the Rank 6 blaze the White Rock Lake fire evolved into on Aug. 4, thanks to a wind speed of more than 40 km/h.

Blackwell argues that if the ranchers and private contractors had been allowed to stay and help fight it, a catastrophic blaze could have been averted.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth lashes out at people in the Monte Lake area who attempted to flout the wildfire evacuation order. (Enzo Zanatta/CBC)

But Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth blasted the idea of anyone flouting an evacuation order.

"While our crews were able to get the residents to safety, these brave firefighters very nearly paid with their lives," he said on Aug. 6, after firefighters had to rescue a number of people disobeying an evacuation order for the White Rock Lake fire

 "By any measure, this is completely unacceptable."

Todd Stone, the B.C. Liberal MLA for Kamloops‒South Thompson, is calling for a public inquiry into the government's management of wildfires this season.

B.C. Liberal MLA Todd Stone is calling for a public inquiry into B.C.'s management of wildfires this season. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

People impacted by the White Rock Lake wildfire were allowed to visit their properties over the weekend — 28 homes were destroyed, many cattle and livestock died, and utility services are slowly being restored in the Monte Lake area. 

Blackwell says the province should be held accountable for the mismanagement of wildfires. 

"This starts with policy right at the top and that is what causes these fires to get out of control," he said. "There needs to be heads roll[ing], absolutely."

Tap the link below to learn more:

It has been a difficult few weeks for many people in the Southern Interior. The White Rock Lake fire stretches all the way between Kamloops and Kelowna. It's burned more than 780 square kilometres and with it, many people's homes and ranches. Daybreak's David French investigates some of the anger and frustration of the people who have been impacted by the fire, and the response from political leaders. 8:26

With files from David French and Courtney Dickson

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