Kamloops-area 'redneck' wildfire volunteers will keep working with BCWS after Rossmoore Lake

Wildfire volunteers prepared

Members of a group of "redneck" volunteer firefighters who last summer quietly helped battle a stubborn and dangerous blaze threatening homes south of Kamloops are actively training and will be prepared to join the fight again in the coming months.

That's what the head of the Knutsford Initial Respose Team told Thompson-Nicola Regional District directors on Friday during a committee of the whole meeting.

KIRT Chief Terry Jessup said his crews built trust with the BC Wildfire Service last summer during the Rossmoore Lake wildfire, which was burning just south of the city. He said members of the society’s team are trained in wildfire suppression and were able to prove themselves during the 2023 fire season.

“We’re out there every day, we're very structured, we have strong leadership, we have very strong crew with great work ethic, and we co-operated — big word, co-operate with [BC] Wildfire [Service],” Jessup said.

“We're professional, we're approachable and we had local knowledge with ways to get local assets in there and help. That's huge. That's really, really huge.”

Out-of-the-box thinking

Jessup said the team cooperated with all roadblocks during the Rossmoore fire and was able to successfully campaign to become an employee of BCWS. He said all work was conducted under BCWS' supervision.

“We do what they say, go where they do, and there's no freelancing. We're under their direction,” he said.

“We had to sign in, sign out daily, like everybody else. We're left on our own like everybody else.”

He said some BCWS management were supportive of their initiative while others were more hesitant. He said some community members were hesitant as well.

“Those people were resentful that we were doing things the way we were because they thought it was overkill,” he said.

“It’s out-of-the-box thinking for Wildfire, it was out-of-the-box thinking for some of our community members as well.”

While Jessup said it was clear to the team that they were given menial tasks to begin with, they were eventually given some leadership positions, including orienting and leading South African wildland firefighters.

'Redneck fire trucks'

The society was registered last December, but has roots dating back to 2021, when 25 members of the community completed fire suppression training and launched a community watch program.

Through fundraising and private donations, Jessup said the training cost $4,500. The team also paid for equipment, estimating each member put in around $1,000, and used their own trucks.

“Redneck fire trucks — they come in all shapes and sizes, and so do we,” Jessup told the TNRD.

He said the group is made of volunteers, which made it difficult to predict the crew’s turnout each day during last year’s fire season.

He said while there were six to eight members, the crew primarily worked with a crew size of three to five daily. As of April this year, he said the initial response team now has 13 crew members.

“First thing and foremost, and it still stands this way, every first call goes to the fire centre — *5555. We are not middle people. We don't take phone calls,” Jessup said.

“We worked alongside wildfire and KFR when they did attend, and once wildfire got there it was their show. We were under their leadership and we did what we could to help them and that developed the trust with wildfire management.”

What does the future hold?

TNRD CAO Scott Hildebrand praised the community response team and the model, saying he’d like the see the same model replicated 49 times over to get 50 of these types of groups in the TNRD area.

“This is the exact outcome the taskforce was looking for when the recommendation came forward with working with societies, is this model,” Hildebrand said.

"We've got 10 electoral areas, if we had five of these groups in every one of them we'd be much better off."

He said some work will have to happen in the TNRD and in conversation with BCWS to determined how these groups could be funded.

KCRS president Gordon Peterson said the society is actively seeking insurance for liability and is looking into a more formal understanding of how their cooperative approach would work in the future.

“The discussion that we had with the insurance agent, and she's looking into getting a quote, is the importance of the recognition that when we are active in responding to an emergency situation, we're working under the guidance of BC Wildfire Services, we're not freelancing,” Peterson said.

“We probably are going to have to take it a little bit further in terms of having some sort of a more formal understanding that if we're engaged with them, then we're in support of them rather than us doing it on our own.”

Peterson said the society would have to refer to an insurance agent and legal council to ensure they aren’t putting themselves into “unwitting jeopardy.”

Jessup said the initial response team has established a rough response area, is working on a team callout system, will be conducting lightning watch with a duty roster, are looking for a more permanent location for the society and said he was confident the society would be able to continue to work with BCWS in the future.

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