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Kelowna  

Firefighters' heroic battle

Each year, Castanet selects a newsmaker of the year, a person, group or thing that had a great impact on the region. For 2017, we selected B.C.'s wildfire fighters.

From sweeping floods to the worst wildfire season in B.C.’s history, it was a year of extremes.

In the words of B.C.’s chief fire information officer, Kevin Skrepnek, it was an unprecedented season.

More than 1.2 million hectares of forest burned, more than 65,000 people were displaced and $568 million was spent on fire response. All of this and zero deaths.

“When you consider just the sheer number of people who were displaced and the number of people who (were) responding to the fires... I think that is pretty incredible,” said Skrepnek.

Pickups filled with firefighters in red shirts and navy blue pants filled the Okanagan in late April, trading in their axes for sandbags.

Hundreds of tents filled Westbank First Nation land and became home to firefighters as they fought rising floodwaters. More than 1,000 firefighters spent the next two months protecting homes and infrastructure.

“Even before we really got into the swing of fire season, a lot of our folks had already been deployed a number of times to assists with flooding,” Skrepnek said.

Fatigue was a big concern as the flooding dragged on and wildfires started igniting across the Interior.

By late June, crews jumped right into the most ferocious fire season ever.

On average, about 1,700 firefighters are employed by the service each year. At the peak of this summer's fire season, more than 4,700 people were under BC Wildfire Service command.

“A good chunk of our firefighters are post-secondary students,” Skrepnek said. “A lot of them worked right up to the Labour Day long weekend and then went to school right after that.”

Three of the province's biggest fires ever sparked in 2017, the biggest being the Plateau Fire, followed by Hanceville Riske Creek and Elephant Hill, all in the Central Interior.

But the Okanagan didn't escape the flames, with a destructive blaze in Okanagan Centre, and others near Joe Rich, Okanagan Mountain Park, Summerland, and several small spot fires in the Glenrosa area of West Kelowna.

As the season wore on, rules were tweaked to limit the number of days firefighters could work in a row to ensure they got adequate rest.

“By the time fire season had wrapped up, you had folks who had really been working for three or four months straight at that point,” said Skrepnek.

Currently, an external review is being conducted on the 2017 wildfire season.

"I think, potentially, for some really good recommendation out of that,” Skrepnek concluded.

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