Volunteer fire halls backbone of rural service

Mel Rothenburger is the TNRD Director for Electoral Area P, including Whitecroft and Heffley Creek. He was the mayor of Kamloops from 1999-2005 and a former newspaper editor.

When we think of crews battling wildfires, we tend to envision B.C. Wildfire Service firefighters dropping into the midst of the action with helicopters and tankers dropping water and retardant onto the battle front.

But many of those firefighters this past summer, as in 2003, were men and women who left their day jobs for days or weeks to help in the grueling, risky job of trying to stop the fires and save lives and property.

They took their equipment, their fire trucks, along with a leave of absence from supportive employers (or, put their own businesses on hold), and headed off to where they were needed. They are the volunteers who form the core of fire departments in our rural communities.

They practise almost every week, attend workshops and training sessions, and are experts in what they do. While protecting their communities against residential fires is their priority, many take special training that gives them the skills to go against wildfires when they’re needed.

In 2003, the McLure fire department became legendary as its volunteers were first on the scene when the huge McLure fire exploded in the community’s backyard.

Often, though, volunteer fire departments and their equipment are sent to distant locations. For example, members of the Pritchard fire department spent a lot of time in the Cariboo this year.

The point of this column isn’t to relive the 2017 wildfires, but to point out the varied work of rural volunteer fire departments and how their roles and structure are changing.

These departments work on tight budgets, always looking for the most economical ways to outfit themselves and keep current. Turnout gear for each firefighter typically costs several thousand dollars, and all the other equipment has to be maintained and replaced as needed. A truck can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Halls have to be kept in good shape.

Provincially mandated training requirements are becoming much more stringent, and records keeping alone has become a major challenge, meaning more volunteer time must be invested.

It’s all about reducing risk and increasing efficiency. A report presented to the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) board of directors this month identifies the start of a strategy to meet these new challenges.

The report summarizes detailed studies done by a consultant over the past several months of 11 of the more than 26 fire departments operating in the TNRD. (There are several structures for fire departments, including municipally run, regional-district operated, and those run by societies but supported by taxation.)

The Sun Peaks department wasn’t included in this round of studies, but others such as Clearwater, Pritchard and McLure were.

Such things as service levels, training and mutual aid were looked at, with specific recommendations for each fire department. Proposals for various changes will be rolled out over the next few months.

In some cases, it seems likely that society-run financial contribution fire departments will be moved under TNRD administration to relieve them of some of their burden. Improved co-ordination and support at the TNRD level is another probable step.

My view is that as small rural fire departments — which do such important work — face more stringent requirements and higher costs, we have to look at ways to help them handle it.

Every time government says, “you have to do more,” it has to also say, “and here’s how we’re going to help you do it.”




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