The BC Wildfire Service must have smoke in their belfry, or some such mental pollution, to forget that they work for me. I don’t take orders from them.
I’m speaking in the collective “me” and “I” during this discussion.
Before going on, let me sincerely and strenuously praise our heroic, well-trained and deeply dedicated forest fire fighters (structure, airport, all firefighters). You are genuine heroes. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
This is about the BC Wildfire Service’s leaders, and, more precisely, the leaders of those leaders (and probably a few paper-whipped lawyers).
The message is blunt. If I want to go fight a forest fire on my land, or Crown land (which, it bears reminding, I/we own), or if I’m invited by my neighbour to their land, or I want to bring a sandwich and jug of fuel to those who are in the fight, then the job of the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) is to clap their hands and roll out the welcome mat.
Until the day the BCWS is so rich in personnel that no wildfire grows bigger than a ball diamond, anyone who wants to help out ought to be gratefully applauded by our under-resourced government crews.
Obviously, misuse of equipment or disruption of a scene by a non-professional (or professional) is not acceptable. But disallowing volunteers or paid amateurs to step in is worse by far.
It wasn’t that long ago that a forest fire could trigger conscription: random people ordered off the street by law to come help. Trained leaders were in place to instruct these rookies on how to handle an axe, hose, pulaski, etc. on the fire line. If things were too dangerous in one spot, they were moved to other support duties.
Loggers and farmers were also hired en masse, because it was their livelihood going up in smoke. They had heavy equipment, hand tools, a knowledge of the forest, and motivation.
Perhaps conscription is too far the other way, but what’s not acceptable is this true story from this year’s fire season: A hardworking B.C. farmer, doing nothing wrong and everything normally, accidentally caught some crops on fire due to an equipment malfunction. The fire quickly got into the adjacent forest. A few phone calls later, a small army of neighbours arrived and they went to work putting it out. They were succeeding.
To their surprise, a crew arrived from the BCWS. There was rejoicing that skilled helpers were joining them. But no. That small band of entitled stumpheads ordered, on threat of arrest, all the neighbours to back off as they imposed themselves alone. The neighbours, aghast and agog, felt bullied into compliance, but stayed on. Good thing they did. Once the BCWS crew pronounced the scene secure and rolled away, the fire sprang up again. The neighbours completed the job properly. (I still don’t blame the firefighters, who were only acting on orders with the scant resources afforded by government, including that key tool called time.)
Another farmer in another B.C. location dealing with a different fire was driving up to her house not far from the flames. She was well into her elder years and lived alone. She came upon a fire crew blocked by a tree that had fallen across the road. Why, she asked them, were they not dispatching the obstruction and getting on with the firefight? She was told they were not authorized to operate a chainsaw in this situation. (Whomever crafted such a policy ought to be flown out of the province on the next water bomber.) The old woman huffed, went to the woodshed, grabbed her own chainsaw, and cut the tree off the road herself as the “certified” athletic 20-somethings all watched. The public took it as yet another sign that of course they had to stay and defend their property, in the face of such bad leadership (written and field) of perfectly capable professionals.
It also signalled that trivial policies were now overwhelming obviously greater imparatives.
Similar examples are what created confrontational scenarios like this week’s supply convoy in the Shuswap threatening to plow through the BCWS roadblocks to bring needed aid to residents inside wildfire zone in that part of the province. It was terrible behaviour meeting with terrible behaviour.
It’s what prompted near violence in 2018 at the Francois Lake ferry terminal when authorities were blocking diesel destined for heavy equipment, and cattle liners destined for livestock rescue, from going into that active fire zone, as friends and neighbours on the north side tried to save the day for defiant residents on the south side from fires the government had unequivocally failed at handling. A snack truck was even refused entry to resupply the Takysie Lake convenience store because, the driver was told, “we don’t want (people defying evacuation orders) to be too comfortable.”
These people knew what they were doing, where they were going, and how to be safe in the process. How do we know? Because they circumnavigated the ferry checkpoint and safely accomplished their many missions of mercy despite the uniforms working against them.
Incidentally, the RCMP are being unjustly thrust into the middle of these confrontations, forced to do the dirty work of government officials lost in their own woods. Did you know Mounties were dispatched to the neighbours in that Francois Lake southcountry, that year, demanding dental records from the residents who defied evacuation orders so they could be identified after their burned bodies were found? What ghastly scare tactics to use on people doing everything within their rights. No one suffered a scratch, incidentally, and the only homes that burned in that area that year were unattended.
It’s what backed Cariboo-Chilcotin First Nations community leaders into positions of anger against any government actors coming into their territory in 2017 thinking they would expel them from wildfire lines as they protected their territories.
The B.C. government pronouncing themselves the supreme and exclusive authorities to fight forest fires ignores the fact that many people have their own firefighting expertise, and what that might be is none of your damn business. It’s ok to use whatever you’ve got, from certification to enthusiasm, and that’s especially true in rural areas where people are more prone to such complementary experiences, and where there is more real estate space to put up an effective fire fight.
It’s not about “civilians” pretending to be equal to a professional firefighter, it’s about doing something, anything, to help, and how helpfullness is well within the regular person’s capabilities. On every fire, there is room for support at or near the front lines.
For anyone who thinks the stakes are too high, sorry, there are search and rescue efforts, flooding and storm responses, and even military defence exercises on land, water and air populated by untrained, semi-trained and/or inexperienced people, and that’s about life and death as well.
The assumption of supreme and exclusive authority also ignores the moral foundation of a democracy and flouts the Charter of Rights & Freedoms. This is not an anti-government rant. On the contrary, this is about specific failings that stand out because government usually gets it mostly right, in our local-provincial-federal context. Recognition of citizens’ autonomy and civil liberties is only uneven, not absent.
The Good Samaritan Act protects from legal liability those individuals who do their best to help at the scene of an emergency. So, clearly, laws can be made to cover regular people who step up when others are in need.
Our justice laws stipulate anyone can make a citizen’s arrest, and the federal government maps out how to do it. It is recommended that you call the folks with badges “whenever possible” not because they are empowered differently but because “police officers are equipped with the proper intervention tools and trained to deal with incidents which may escalate to become violent.” They’re the pros, the federal government stipulates, but certainly you may do it, if you accept the risks. It’s not instead of, it is in addition to.
You can’t sue WorkSafeBC, under Section 127 of the Workers Compensation Act. Notwithstanding the grotesque injustice of that (Are you telling me WorkSafeBC doesn’t botch a file and shouldn’t be accountable for it? The presence of such a law is proof that obviously they do, which obviously means the grassroots public good is being stymied in the name of the bureaucratic public good…a nasty paradox), it’s still proof that legislation is written expressly to cover the Crown’s butt.
So, clearly, certifications and professional titles are just an excuse. Put the right legislation in place that befits the natural facts, and then get on with enabling residents to be as prepared and equipped as possible to do their own work in conjunction with government professionals. Together.
Look to the Australian government – also a nation governed by the British parliamentary system – that actually provides homeowners with information and optional training to give residents a better chance to defend their properties when bush fires sweep through. And all due respect to the heroes of our forests, Australia’s wildfires are, pound for pound, spectacularly more dangerous. B.C.’s forest fire scale goes to “extreme” but theirs goes all the way up to “catastrophic.” That’s a fact, not hyperbole. Homeowners there are told of the risks, but empowered to stay and defend their own property should they wish to, and many do.
Read the Government of South Australia’s “During A Bush Fire” checklist on the online version of this editorial.
Will people be hurt or killed defending their property, if left to their own devices? Possibly.
Do rescuers have to endanger themselves by going in after those free-will people? No. (If someone wants to try, again, that’s their free will.)
The legal and moral fact is, we have autonomy over our bodies even in death. Take, for example, organ donation. Unless we’ve signed up through a specific process, our organs cannot be taken from our dead bodies to help those in need of a transplant, even if they are on the cusp of agonizing death themselves. My body…my choice.
(But for goodness sake, please choose to sign up as an organ donor!)
Likewise, if I am dying and need only a blood transfusion to save me, but I refuse it, that cannot be overridden by medical professionals who have many certifications that I do not have. My body…my choice.
If we can legally climb mountains in any weather, sail private vessels into stormy seas, become stunt pilots as a hobby, own lethal snakes as pets, can smoke and eat candy until we rot from the inside out, then the cement is set on our abilities to stay and defend our properties from fire, flood, killer bees, zombie hordes, whatever.
Should people have to register themselves if staying to defend, despite an evacuation order? Yes.
Should anyone under 18 have to leave? Yes.
Other than that, it’s my land, it’s my liberty, it’s my liability. Help me, get out of my way, or ideally both.
By Frank Peebles