How can we improve safety and effectiveness in rural settings?

The following recommendations are a summary of many hours of discussions with local residents, with a focus on local firefighters and support staff who worked for 90 days on the fires surrounding our community.

 

The six topics discussed in detail below are:

Local knowledge

effective Organization

Back burning policies

Consistent management

Evacuations and closures

communications technology

 

Two themes stand out, appearing in all six topics :

use of Local Knowledge

a need for strong Communications on all levels

We are committed to improving on the current approach to wildfire management in our region and will be following up with our government representatives to advocate for the appropriate changes to be made.

 

CO-MANAGEMENT FOR INCREASED SAFETY:

recommendations for updated protocols

 

No.1: Local knowledge is an asset.

 

issue: Fire behaviour experts need regionally specific knowledge

  • increased safety risks when decisions on back burns and firefighting strategies are made without local knowledge

  • decreased effectiveness when decisions on back burns and firefighting strategies are made without local knowledge

  • reports of management confusion about location of communities

  • reports of confusion at all levels of management about topographical basics, i.e. tree species, meteorological patterns, etc.

 

Notes/observations:

  • Chilcotin weather has very specific variables that experts from other areas/countries are not aware of

    • topography causes variable gusting winds

    • glaciers warming cause gusts with cold air mixed

  • geographical details are known to residents of the region

    • water flow and water sources, forest types, tree species

    • vulnerable areas due to pine/fir beetle infestations

    • locations of ranches, structures, fences, rangeland

    • value of assets for decision-making purposes (i.e. let the meadow burn but save the fences, etc)

 

recommendation: CO-management, local on-site command

  • set up a local command unit employing local knowledge

  • employ local consultants as management / mandatory advisors on weather trends, topography, access, assets

  • gather weather trends and information from pilots and locals - they are more reliable than most weather forecasts

  • consult with local reps before back burning

  • employ knowledgeable, experienced and capable local ground crew before bringing in crew from other provinces/countires

 

No.2: Organization makes the effort much more effective.

 

Issue: scheduling of shifts and meetings consumed valuable time

  • increased safety risk when firefighters are on the fires during the most volatile times of the day

  • decreased effectiveness when fire fighting strategy does not include early mornings, cooler evenings and nights

 

Notes/observations:

  • meetings were held during prime fire fighting times - creating consistent setbacks

  • equipment was often not running and ready until 10.30am, meaning crews were arriving at the fire at the hottest time of the day

  • firefighters face increased risk while fighting mid-day OR have to retreat due to the risks of fighting mid-day

  • pumps, bladders, and hoses need to be set up and ready well ahead of time

  • the Salish Crew provided an excellent model - disciplined, organized, informed, methodical

 

recommendation: create split shifts (as most nations do)

  • create a much safer environment by fighting fires at the least volatile times

  • fighting the fires will be much more effective with 2 shifts, allowing for more control

  • Example:

    • Morning Shift - 4am to 12noon

    • Afternoon Shift - 12noon to 8pm

    • OR an Evening Shift - 4pm to 12midnight (if the Afternoon Shift is too volatile)

  • safety meetings will be more up-to-date before a split shift, and there is no wasted time with no crews on the fire

 

No.3: Backburning policies need urgent review.

 

Issue: BACK BURNING

  • exponentially increased risk to firefighters, communities and infrastructure

  • exponentially decreased effectiveness when back burns spread out of control

  • putting firefighters and property at risk when a back burn spreads out of control must be treated very seriously

  • as mentioned above (No.1): local knowledge is essential when making decisions on back burning

 

Notes/observations:

  • forest health and conditions have changed in recent years due to climate change

  • pine beetle, fir beetle has created more fuel and needs to be accounted for in back burning plans

  • reports from local residents that many of the 2017 back burns did not achieve the intended (positive) outcome

 

recommendation: a complete review of BACKBURN policy

  • re-evaluate the effectiveness and safety of current backburn policies

  • consult with local representatives before approving any back burning

  • create a system to communicate a review to local community for back burns that do not achieve intended outcome

 

No.4: Consistent management eliminates confusion.

 

issue: Inconsistency at the management level

  • increased risk to fire crews when management makes uninformed decisions

  • decreased effectiveness when management strategy lacks continuity

  • constantly changing management without adequate overlap

 

recommendation: co-management, 2 fire managers working alternate shifts

  • create consistency with a local co-management system

  • 2 fire managers alternating rotations to create consistency and awareness

  • sufficient overlap between incoming and outgoing management to ensure continuity

 

No: 5: Evacuations and closures were arbitrary in many cases.

 

issue: lack of REASONING on evacuations and closures

  • increased risk to local residents and firefighters when the only clinic is arbitrarily forced to close (even before an evacuation alert was issued)

  • undue economic impact on rural communities when evacuations and closures are ordered from a centralized command

 

Notes/observations:

  • highway closures prevented residents from acquiring essential supplies, including personal fire fighting equipment

  • RCMP and military personnel lacked local geographical knowledge, lacking discretion to make decisions on coming and going of local residents

  • highway closures had massive impact on local economy

  • the unreasonable, pre-emptive closure of our clinic prevented residents from receiving healthcare

  • not allowing residents to come back home for several weeks at a time caused personal hardship to many community members

  • lack of communication and coherence between the various government departments gave way to mis-information and created confusion for residents (many of whom found Facebook to be their best source of up-to-date information)

  • lack of communication around military presence and function felt like government overreach

 

recommendation: co-management, local command represents rural residents

  • establish and maintain alternate evacuation routes

  • local command provides a realistic, current assessment of risks

  • local command handles processing of permits for locals through central command (EOC)

  • local command works with central command (EOC) to establish appropriate evacuations and closures

  • local command communicates accurate information to residents

 

***a note on 2017 evacuation statistics in the Chilcotin region

  • How many residents of the Chilcotin who were ordered to evacuate defied those orders?

  • Of the residents that chose to stay, how many saved their homes from the fires?

    • Example - Riske Creek, Tletinq'ox First Nation

These statistics must be reviewed, and we suspect the findings will warrant change to existing policy. The wildfires of 2017 in the Chilcotin region demonstrated the current approach to evacuation in rural areas to be ineffective, inappropriate, and created further risks for residents of remote communities.

 

No. 6: Better use of communications technology would help.

 

issue: outdated communications systems and lack of communications strategy

  • exponentially increased safety risk to firefighters when they are unable to communicate with each other and/or central command

  • decreased effectiveness and increased risk to firefighters when using outdated, printed maps with no topographical detail

  • reports of ground crew left with no communications

 

Notes/observations:

  • radio quality was insufficient for topography

  • equipment operators had insufficient communications devices

  • central command needs to know where crew is at all times

  • crew needs to know exactly where safety zones and escape routes are in relation to where they are

  • central command needs equipment that works in remote areas, i.e. outside of cell phone range

  • locals had to provide own SAT phones in some instances

  • lack of system for communications, i.e. who is using what channel

 

recommendation:

  • provide digital devices (tablets or smartphones) with gps and daily maps loaded over google earth

  • all equipment operators and crew leaders should have gps devices showing their exact location, safety zones and escape routes

  • upgrade radios for remote locations - more repeaters / better repeaters

  • employ dispatchers to keep communications clear and systematic

  • communicate hourly weather reports to all crew

  • possible cell service on highway 20