by Dave Preston
A story that made national headlines this week portrays police as frustrated with the lack of response from firefighters to the Trepanier Fire.
The September 9 fire started in high winds near Trepanier Road and Hwy. 97C, growing in size quickly. It led to the evacuation of more than 1,500 residents and destroyed four homes.
The story by the Canadian Press and appearing in newspapers coast to coast on Monday relies heavily on recordings of RCMP radio transmissions. It suggests a slow response to what was ultimately one of the fire season’s worst events in B.C.
Officials tell PeachlandNews.com that it is the problem of crossing jurisdictional boundaries that caused any perceived delay.
Widely reported as starting shortly after 3 p.m., the Trepanier Fire was actually first reported seven minutes before 3 o’clock.
It took 17 minutes and 21 seconds for the first firefighter to arrive on scene. He was an officer from the Wildfire Management Branch sent to assess the situation.
At 31 minutes, 47 seconds after the fire was reported, a helicopter was on scene bucketing.
Peachland fire trucks were at the Trepanier Fire 41 minutes into the event. It is not known when the first forestry firefighters arrived on scene.
Forestry officials pinpointed the starting point of the Trepanier Fire as just a few metres south of Trepanier Road, near the on-ramp to Hwy. 97C and very close to Trepanier Regional Park.
The starting point is 2.6 kilometres down Trepanier Road from Peachland’s municipal boundary in an unincorporated area of the Regional District of Central Okanagan — an area that does not have a fire department and does not have an agreement with the District of Peachland for fire protection.
PeachlandNews.com has pieced together a timeline using archived recordings of the main Central Okanagan RCMP radio channel, information provided by the Wildfire Management Branch and data from Jason Brolund, the Central Okanagan’s emergency program coordinator.
The Trepanier Fire – Response Timeline
(Times below refer to time of day (2:53:00 p.m.) and time since incident start 0:00:00.)
2:53:00 p.m. | 0:00:00
It begins at 2:53 p.m., when two RCMP officers are on Hwy. 97C, the Connector. The two officers talk to each other on their radios.
“Was that smoke there when we came up?” says the first officer.
“Ah 10-4, I’m going to go down to it,” says the second officer.
“Yeah that just happened.”
“It will be off Trepanier there.”
At the same time, fire dispatch in Kelowna receives two 911 calls, one from a citizen and another from a police officer.
2:55:00 p.m. | 0:02:00
Kelowna fire dispatch reports the fire to the Wildfire Management Branch.
2:55:06 p.m. | 0:02:06
A police dispatcher contacts officers at the fire.
“Charlie 7 they’re just asking the size of it,” stated the dispatcher.
“Large enough that they gotta get forestry onto this. It’s about 50 feet by 50 feet.”
2:56:14 p.m. | 0:03:14
Minutes after the fire is noticed, a Mountie expresses his feelings about not being able to do anything.
“…feel helpless here. We’re just <unintelligible> watching.”
Police dispatch notifies the officers on scene that the fire is outside the fire protection area for Peachland Fire and Rescue Service and that PFRS has advised forestry (Wildfire Management Branch).
“It’s catching on the trees here,” says an officer.
“They seemed to be already aware of it when I called so I think that forestry is also aware,” says the police dispatcher.
2:58:23 p.m. | 0:05:23
Police close the exit ramp from Hwy. 97C to Trepanier Road.
3:01:42 p.m. | 0:08:42
“We’re going to need more help. The fire is really starting to move and we got houses that are real close,” says an officer.
3:02:01 p.m. | 0:09:01
An officer asks dispatch to confirm foresty is on its way.
“We need to notify hydro because we got some powerlines that are going to go up,” he said. “It’s moving toward this first home, which is not too far down the road.”
3:05:41 p.m. | 0:12:41
An officer says over the radio, “It’s moving my way about a metre every 30 seconds. Two metres.”
3:09:04 p.m. | 0:16:04
An officer says he is going to Star Place to stop traffic and turn everyone back.
3:09:35 p.m. | 0:16:35
The police dispatcher informs the on-scene officers that forestry is aware of the fire and hydro has been called.
An officer asks if there is an ETA for forestry firefighters. The dispatcher answers, “10-10,” meaning negative.
“Can you relay to them the importance of this before it gets out of hand?” asks the officer.
3:10:21 p.m. | 0:17:21
An officer talks to another officer on the radio. “Charlie 50 from 5, I just had a pickup truck come up. He’s from forestry and he just told me that they’re sitting in the hanger waiting for them to come see whether… they were to get on this. I don’t know where it fell apart here but anyway they’re going to be taking off from the hanger in a few seconds here.”
3:10:46 p.m. | 0:17:46
“It’s right into the trees now Steve. She’s going full bore now,” says an officer.”
3:15:38 p.m. | 0:22:38
An officer says over te radio, “Looks like we got our first Peachland truck on scene here.”
It is unknown where the officer was when he saw the Peachland fire truck or what type of truck the officer saw.
3:22:00 p.m. | 0:29:00
The first bucketing helicopter is en route to the fire, according to forestry.
3:24:00 p.m. | 0:31:00
A full scale evacuation of Star Place and along Trepanier Road is now in progress. RCMP officers on scene are conducting the evacuation.
3:24:47 p.m. | 0:31:47
Police notify dispatch that a helicopter is on scene and bucketing the fire.
3:27:00 p.m. | 0:34:00
The forestry officer on scene officially asks for assistance from Peachland Fire and Rescue.
3:31:00 p.m. | 0:38:00
Peachland Fire Rescue sends Squad 21 (bush truck) and Tender 21 (water hauler) to the regional district side of the fire. The fire department’s two engines are sent to the Peachland side of the fire.
3:34:00 p.m. | 0:41:00
The first Peachland fire truck arrives on scene.
3:52:00 p.m. | 0:59:00
Bruce Smith, communications coordinator for the regional district, receives a call that the Emergency Operations Centre is being activated.
3:59:00 p.m. | 1:06:00
A forestry bird dog (spotter) aircraft is overhead.
4:09:02 p.m. | 1:16:02
An officer reports that Trepanier Road has been evacuated east to Cousins Road.
4:16:00 p.m. | 1:23:00
The first load of fire retardant is dropped near the fire, according to forestry.
Even though the Trepanier Fire was clearly headed toward Peachland and growing rapidly, Peachland firefighters were not initially allowed to respond to the fire.
Fire Chief Grant Topham said Tuesday that his department’s vehicles and personnel can only cross into another jurisdiction’s boundaries when asked to by an authorized agency, such as the RCMP or the forestry ministry.
Under no circumstances can firefighters cross jurisdictional boundaries without authorization, according to Peachland CAO Elsie Lemke.
“Primarily it’s for liability reasons,” Lemke said Tuesday.
“Boundaries are there for the same reason why you have property boundaries fom your neighbour,” said Lemke. “You own what’s yours and they own what’s theirs.”
Lemke said unless Peachland firefighters have permissions to go into a non-Peachland area, the firefighters and the District of Peachland end up having no insurance coverage should anything happen. In addition, the district would not have WorkSafe BC coverage.
“We can go outside the area (Peachland fire protection boundary) when we are asked to go,” said Lemke.
The regional district began looking at asking Peachland to provide fire protection in the Trepanier area in 2010.
Lemke said there was no grant funding available at the time to conduct a detailed study and she has heard nothing more on the subject.
Mayor Keith Fielding refused to criticize the fire response when interviewed by media this week.
In a fact sheet received by PeachlandNews.com Tuesday, the Wildfire Management Branch states, “A letter of understanding between the Wildfire Management Branch and Emergency Management British Columbia ensures the consistent and co‐ordinated suppression of wildfires near populated areas, under a unified command structure. It also allows municipal fire departments to respond to fires outside of their jurisdiction if requested by the Wildfire Management Branch.”
“An initial review by all responding agencies shows an excellent coordinated response. The ministry has received numerous compliments for its fast response to this fire. As is standard with any wildfire of note, the ministry will be reviewing the response to identify any areas for possible improvement,” the fact sheet states.