This is part of our three-part series looking back on the Embleton Mountain Wildfire that threatened the communities of Whitecroft, Heffley Lake and Sun Peaks in July and August of 2021.
This series is made possible through the support of Engel & Volkers Kamloops.
The impact of last year’s Embleton Mountain wildfire is still visible from the Heffley Valley, where charred forests extend close to the valley bottom. It serves as a powerful reminder of the threat wildfires pose to mountain communities like Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (SPMRM).
Since the wildfire, several groups have increased efforts to mitigate the risk of fire spreading. However, despite the threat to the community, SPMRM has yet to develop a landscape-level forest fire management plan.
A municipal plan would look at actions SPMRM could take, in coordination with the province, to lessen the likelihood of a wildfire sweeping through the community. This could include the construction of strategically placed fire breaks, which are wide clearings designed to stop wildfires from spreading to specific areas.
Garnet Mierau, a registered professional forester hired by the municipality, told SPIN he’s had productive discussions with the SPMRM and Sun Peaks Fire Rescue fire chief about moving forward with a plan. However, the item has yet to go to council or be allocated funding.
SPMRM does have a community wildfire protection plan in place, which differs from a landscape plan in its focus on resident and business behaviours. It was developed in 2019 and is typically functional for three to five years. The document lays out fuel management projects that can be carried out in or surrounding the community.
“Those plans really focus on a fire from the community outwards,” Mierau said. “So someone is burning their trash in their backyard and a fire gets away and gets into the forest. That is really what those [plans] are designed for.”
Work related to the existing plan is tentatively scheduled for this fall. It involves fuel-management projects to the southeast of holes 11, 12, and 13 of Sun Peaks Golf Course, a few tree islands to the west and south of the elementary school, and maintenance on an area north of the fire hall.
According to SPMRM, there is money in place for the work, but no contractor has been hired to carry it out yet.
Mierau said funding for a landscape-level forest fire management plan could come from the government or even private sources, but either way is a necessary step.
SPMRM Mayor Al Raine said funding the creation of the plan is a priority for council.
Raine also suggested the switchback corner on Sun Peaks Rd. for a potential firebreak. He said it could build on previous logging that took place in the area and extend down into the McGillivray Creek Valley and up onto the slopes south of McGillivray.
A three-to-four-hundred-metre-wide break would help guard the community against wildfire threats, he said.
“You could plant deciduous trees, so you would have a different forest there — one that does not catch on fire so easily,” he added.
The municipality was not given the opportunity to provide guidance on the logging near the switchback corner when it took place and would have encouraged the creation of the fire break at the time, Raine said.
He added that during the 2003 McGillivray fire, which burnt within three kilometres of the resort and led to a forced evacuation of residents, authorities built a fire break around McGillivray Lake.
“It makes a lot of good sense,” Raine said. “If you have got a good firebreak, with the road access on top, you have a damn good chance of putting out the fire.”
For its part, Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) is investing in preparing and training staff to respond to a blaze.
All staff working in SPR’s operations department are required to take the Basic Fire Suppression and Safety training, which provides a basic understanding of wildfire behaviour and best practices for responding to them.
During training days, staff respond to mock fires. “We go through the drills as if they were a real live fire,” explained Barney Mouat, outside operations director for SPR.
During summer operations, SPR also strategically places water sources around the mountain.
This includes massive “water cubes” that hold around 1,000 litres of water at the top of chairlifts, as well as smaller water containers that can be used by staff.
“Those [smaller water containers] get placed at the base of the tower underneath the Sunburst lift, so that if somebody threw a cigarette butt off the lift and it started to smolder, there’s water at the base of the towers to [quickly put it out],” Mouat said.
SPR infrastructure can also be used to fight forest fires. In 2003, as the McGillivray blaze got close to the resort, hoses were brought to the village and used to wet the ground, adding moisture to prevent the fire from spreading.
The idea behind SPR’s approach is that staff should be ready to jump into action if a wildfire ever takes off on the mountain and serve as key first responders.
SPR’s commitment to quick responses was evident last month. In July, Mouat and a colleague hiked into an area after a small wildfire was reported on the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS) website.
“There was nothing to see when we got there,” he explained. “I was later told by the Sun Peaks Fire Rescue guys that there was a misrepresentation of that place mark on the government website.”
A community effort
Individual homeowners play a key role in guarding against wildfires by ensuring they follow FireSmart principles as laid out in the Homeowner’s manual.
Additionally, Sun Peaks Fire Rescue (SPFR) is supporting fuel mitigation efforts through ignition-zone assessments and chipping days, where crew members haul away the wood and brush that homeowners collect and place in front of their residences to create fuel-free zones.
Clean-ups are also in high gear in the Heffley Valley. Phil Youwe, director of the Heffley Lake Community Association (HLCA) and long-time local resident, said the Embleton Mountain wildfire resulted in some significant grassroots action carried out in coordination with the Thompson Nicola Regional District.
“The wildfire really drove home concern over Crown land, but also for peoples’ properties,” Youwe said.
Youwe organized a FireSmart information session for area residents in June and saw around 55 people attend. They heard from a panel that included a wildfire prevention officer and Thompson Nicola Regional District’s emergency program coordinator.
Youwe said the forum helped motivate the community to clean up yards, put up sprinklers and clear gutters.
Youwe, who is a retired agrologist, said he’d personally like to see changes to wildfire management in British Columbia. Specifically, he said he would like to see BCWS embrace controlled burns to a much greater extent.
“The province has suppressed wildfires for 80-plus years, and as a result our wildfires have become at increased risk,” he said.
The situation has resulted in a build-up of highly combustible fuels in B.C. forests.
“We’ve done a good job in suppressing and putting out fires, but we have more work to do in the area of managing wildfire [and this includes the] reintroduction of prescribed burning,” Youwe added.
Such fuel-management techniques have a long history of being used by Indigenous communities to manage the landscape for the cultivation of certain plants and to promote healthy ecosystems.
Last year’s significant wildfire season has also led to increased funding and significant changes for the BCWS.
In its 2022 budget, the province announced $359 million in new funding for the service. This includes $145 million to support its transition from a largely seasonal to a year-round employer.
“Traditionally, a lot of B.C. Wildfire staff are hired as auxiliary staff,” explained BCWS fire information officer Jean Strong. She said with the new funding, many of those staff members were able to stay on over the winter.
“There are also more year-round positions coming out in communications, and those are all being posted right now to make the organization something that can more easily respond 12 months of the year.”
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