British Columbia’s forest watchdog is investigating the province’s response to wildfires that ravaged small communities on the shores of Shuswap Lake in August, destroying or damaging more than 200 properties.
A statement from the Forest Practices Board released Friday said an investigation was triggered after receiving a complaint about the BC Wildfire Service’s use of planned ignition to reduce forest fuels between populated areas.
At the time the fire was ignited on August 17, the two Lower East Adams Lake and Bush Creek wildfires were moving steadily toward the north shore of Shuswap Lake after igniting about five weeks earlier.
Investigators will visit the area this month near Lee Creek and Scotch Creek in British Columbia’s southern interior.
Jim Cooperman, a Lee Creek resident, says he filed a complaint with the commission, alleging “gross negligence” by the BC Wildfire Service in carrying out the planned ignition just beyond the power lines, at about two kilometers from his home.
Mr. Cooperman says he is convinced that it was the planned fire, not the wildfires themselves, that swept down the slope on August 18, fanned by high winds.
The flames eventually stopped about 15 meters from the back of his house, on the property where Mr. Cooperman said he had lived since 1969.
“Our house is nothing but ashes and burnt sticks. It’s very difficult for us,” he testified.
Mr. Cooperman says one of his neighbors, who works for the BC Wildfire Service, was at home, listening to his work radio, during the fire.
This neighbor recently told him what he had heard on the radio.
“At 5 p.m. we saw a giant cloud of smoke right above our house. And then at 7 p.m., on the radio, they were telling everyone that the fire had escaped and gone through the firewall,” Cooperman said, describing the area cleared to make way for the power lines.
“They knew from 7 p.m. that it was a failure, and yet they told the public that it was a success,” he said Friday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
A release from the provincial Ministry of Forests says the BC Wildfire Service “welcomes the Forest Practices Board’s review as an independent and recognized third party.”
The southern flank of the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire was already burning within 1 mile of the power lines, according to the department.
“The goal [du brûlage] was not to contain the wildfire, but to reduce its intensity and give a greater chance of survival to any structures in its projected path, the release said. While we know the extreme conditions of the day resulted in significant loss of structures, we are aware of the structures planned to prevent the fire at Lee Creek.”
Cooperman points out that power lines meant to act as firebreaks were surrounded by dead brush and became a “conduit” for the flames.
A bulletin issued by the Regional District of Columbia Shuswap at 8:30 p.m., the day of the planned ignition, indicates that the operation was successful.
Aerial lighting of approximately 26 square kilometers was carried out “along the power line in northern Shuswap… creating a significant guard line,” it says.
“The fire in the ignition zone will now burn safely to guards while monitored by crews patrolling along power lines,” the bulletin read.
The flames, which Cooperman describes as a “firestorm,” destroyed more than 170 properties and damaged dozens more in the Shuswap region.
The Skwlax te Secwepemculecw First Nation lost more than 80 structures.
Days after the fire, the BC Wildfire Service’s operations manager defended the planned blaze, saying high, sustained winds that changed the course of the fire were responsible for much of the damage.
The Lower East Adams Lake and Bush Creek fires would soon merge and expand to span more than 450 square kilometers.
The Forest Practices Board says its investigation is expected to take six months to a year. A panel will review the findings and potentially make recommendations.
Last month, British Columbia Premier David Eby announced the creation of an expert working group to provide recommendations on improving emergency preparedness and response. emergency.