British Columbia

Hundreds of volunteer firefighters in Central Kootenay district will now be paid

Around 370 firefighters from Yahk to the Castlegar area and up to the Slocan Valley will soon be paid $15 an hour for call response and training.

Around 370 firefighters from Yahk to Castlegar to Slocan Valley will receive $15/hour for calls, training

Firefighters in the Central Cariboo last summer, during the worst wildfire season B.C. has ever seen. (Cariboo Regional District Emergency Operations Centre)

Effective immediately, hundreds of volunteer firefighters in parts of B.C.'s West Kootenay are going to begin receiving payment for training and call response.

The Regional District of Central Kootenay is going to pay around 220 firefighters $15 an hour, with another 150 crew members set to join the payroll by next year.

The district encompasses 19 small, rural fire departments from Yahk to the Castlegar area and up into the Slocan Valley.

Andrew Bellerby, the regional fire chief who oversees all of the district's departments, said said the renumeration has been a long time coming.

"The good men and women of our communities put their lives at risk and dedicate hours a week for training and attending incidents," he told CBC's Daybreak South.

"It's costs them to actually do this in fuel and time and everything else," he added.

A firefighter works on a controlled burn in September 2017. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Bellerby said modern training is more vigorous, which means volunteers end up at the hall every week — often on top of regular jobs.

"They turn out of bed at 2, 3 a.m. to protect their communities, keep houses from burning down ... they're just looking for some commitment back so they're not out of pocket," Bellerby said.

The chief said they're still technically "volunteers" because they're not making a professional salary.

The new pay system will cost district taxpayers anywhere from $30 to $100 dollars as part of their annual taxes, which Bellerby described as a deal when considering the cost of what homeowners stand to lose without firefighters.

Tax credit

Last year, the B.C. government announced a new tax credit for more than 7,000 volunteer firefighters and search and rescue crews across the province. It said it would reduce the taxable income for volunteer firefighters and search and rescue crews by $3,000, which translates into a benefit of up to $151 each year.

That too, the province said, was meant to come as a token of thanks.

B.C.'s volunteer crews were stretched to their limits last year as they helped battle the province's worst wildfire season on record. More than 1.2 million hectares of land were burned.

The B.C. Wildfire Service has recently begun controlled burns in the Interior in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year. The planned burns will curb the wildfire risk by spacing out trees and removing potential tinder.

With files from Bob Keating and CBC Daybreak South