Volunteer fire crew played critical role throughout Embleton Mountain blaze

Sun Peaks Fire Rescue in fine form following some long days working on the Embleton Mountain wildfire . Photo by Joel Barde

Sun Peaks Fire Rescue (SPFR) has had a busy couple weeks. After the Embleton Mountain wildfire broke out on July 9, local firefighters were called to Whitecroft, where they provided structural protection duties for area homes until the morning of Friday, July 23, rotating on 12 hour shifts. 

This work involved preparing for a scenario that everyone wanted to avoid, namely the wildfire making its way into the community, or a stray ember starting a home on fire. SPFR firefighters also put out small fires when they breached the perimeter fire break built by BC Wildfire Service crews (BCWS). 

SPFR Fire Chief Dean Schiavon was fatigued from a series of long days spent heading Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality’s (SPMRM) Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) when SPIN met with him at the Sun Peaks fire hall the week SPFR’s role at the wildfire was coming to an end. 

“This was the biggest event that we’ve seen in years up here,” he said. “It’s certainly the biggest event I’ve ever seen up here.” 

Looking back, Schiavon said his team of volunteer firefighters performed phenomenally over the course of the fire, which is currently in its latter stages and has been contained by BCWS crews. 

Schiavon said the experience of working alongside BCWS and other contracted crews was one that will “last a lifetime,” with the knowledge gained far surpassing what could ever be taught during SPFR’s weekly Tuesday night meetings. 

“The truck was down there basically 24 hours a day, and if it wasn’t there, it was coming back up here to get fuel,” said Schiavon. 

As part of their work, SPFR firefighters set up sprinklers on and around people’s homes. The idea was that if an ember storm was coming, they could “turn on the sprinklers and help provide a humidity bubble around peoples’ homes, and hopefully prevent any startups around the house,” he explained.  

SPFR was joined by Barriere, Golden, and Armstrong fire departments along the way.

During the blaze, SPFR won praise from BCWS, and SPFR’s fire prevention officer, Martin McQuade, was made a structural protection supervisor. 

Schiavon said running the EOC largely involved planning for the potential evacuation and lositical work, such as organizing meals for firefighters and purchasing supplies. 

He said he was grateful for the team of volunteers he worked with at the centre. 

SPMRM was put on evacuation alert on July 11, which was not lifted until July 22.  

Reflecting on his experience, Schiavon said there were tense times, including on Monday, July 19 when the fire breached a fire break set up on the southern perimeter of the fire, not far from Heffley Louis Creek Rd. 

“There were a lot of helicopters flying around. People were having to work later. And then they brought in the night crew as well,” said Schiavon. “You can really tell that something has changed when they bring in night crews to work.” 

Throughout the event, many have wondered aloud online about how they can support the SPFR firefighters, whether that be donating or organizing a beer tab in their name. 

Asked about this, Schiavon suggested residents direct money towards those who have lost so much during this wildfire season, such as Lytton residents. 

“Donating to the Red Cross in support of the B.C. wildfires, I think, is a really good way for people to show their support,” he said. 

The Sun Peaks Firefighters’ Society is also currently accepting donations, and traditionally holds an annual fundraising gala for the community in the fall. 

Robin Kierstead, a volunteer with the SPFR, said the Embleton experience confirmed something she already suspected. 

“I always suspected, but I learned just how great of a team our whole hall is,” said Kierstead.  

Her days started early and involved patrols of Whitecroft, the Heffley Louis Creek Rd. out to Honeyberry Farm, and even putting out small fires where the blaze made it past fire breaks built by BCWS crews. 

“This was the first large-scale incident that I’ve been part of. It was nice to sort of learn and confirm that the skills I’ve received in training work, and that all of the practice scenarios that we do really come into play and are very, very important,” she added. 

James Griffiths, an SPFR truck operator, said his day began with making sure the truck he was operating was in good working order before heading off to do work related to structural protection. 

“During the day, we would be checking all the structural protection equipment that was ready to run if it needed to,” he said. “And then in the afternoons, especially towards the latter end of the second week, we were getting deployed out to do fire suppression on the road.” 

SPFR firefighters will be paid according to the Whitecroft fire coverage agreement with SPFR, meaning SPMRM was responsible for costs incurred during the first 12 hours of the wildfire response, after which the provincial government and the BC Wildfire Service were responsible for personnel and equipment costs. 

During its July 20 regular council meeting, SPMRM council approved paying SPFR volunteer firefighters the industry standard rate of $46 / hr straight time and paying the Emergency Operations Centre volunteers $25/ hr for their time responding to the wildfire.

With the Embleton Mountain wildfire largely behind the community, there is reason to celebrate. 

But it’s also worth remembering that it’s only the end of July, and there is lots of wildfire season in front of us. 

Given this, Schiavon encouraged everyone to take the time to FireSmart their homes, making sure that they adhere to a set of provincial guidelines aimed at protecting them from potential wildfires. You can learn more about the FireSmart BC guidelines here.  

“If you want to help us out, clear out a space of 1.5 meters away from your house,” said Schiavon. “Make a defensible zone around your house. That’s what’s going to help you if a wildfire is coming up.”

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