Vancouver Island village suspends firefighting services due to shortage of volunteers
The Village of Zeballos has relied on volunteers to run its fire department for decades
A tiny village on Vancouver Island is working with provincial authorities and the regional district to find ways to sustain its volunteer-based fire services, almost two weeks after they were suspended due to a shortage of trained firefighters.
On Thursday evening, the Village of Zeballos is facilitating a virtual community meeting, together with the Strathcona Regional District, the neighbouring Ehattesaht and Nuchatlaht First Nations, the Office of the Fire Commissioner, and a fire service consultancy to find a solution to ensure firefighting services will not be suspended again in the community.
Zeballos, on the Island's northwestern coast, is home to more than 120 people. The community is known for ecotourism and sports fishing, and has always relied on a volunteer-run fire department.
In a written announcement last Friday, Zeballos Mayor Julie Colborne said the village council decided on May 27 to temporarily suspend the Village of Zeballos Volunteer Fire Department's firefighting services, because the recent number and training level of volunteer firefighters were so low they raised concerns from the provincial fire commissioner.
Colborne didn't provide specifics about the firefighting staff or their training, and did not say when firefighting services will resume.
"The reinstatement of the fire department will depend on obtaining enough volunteers and providing them with adequate training to do the job safely in compliance with WorkSafeBC requirements," she said.
She also said the fire chief position has been left vacant, and while residents can call 9-1-1 for help as dispatch services have protocols in place, there will be "no response to a fire callout."
Ernie Polsom, director of FireWise Consulting based in West Kelowna and a former assistant fire commissioner at the Alberta Fire Commissioner's Office, says retaining volunteer firefighters is a common challenge among small communities across western Canada.
"It's difficult to find people who are willing to make long-term, high-intensity, high-requirement ... volunteer commitments anymore," he said.
"We're all working hard. We're all working lots of hours. It's difficult."
The village has asked residents to check whether they need to report the suspension of firefighting services to their insurers.
Resident Cristina Lepore, who runs a restaurant in Zeballos, says she is concerned about the impact the suspension may have on her business, and has reported the suspension to her insurer.
"It increases my concern for the safety of our guests and staff," she said.
"It's already quite hard to run a business with the COVID ... and [we] are still not being able to get insurance at a reasonable price."
Shaun Koopman, protective services co-ordinator with the Strathcona Regional District, says the village has made progress recruiting volunteers since the suspension was announced.
"We have a lot of reasons to have hope for this going forward," he said.
With files from On The Island and All Points West