Search and Rescue crews play low profile but crucial role during civil emergencies like wildfire evacuations

Key role in fire evacuations

What many people may not realize is the important role that BC’s 78 Search and Rescue (SAR) groups play during wildfire events.

During interface wildfires where properties and areas have been given evacuation orders, a local SAR group will typically undertake the door-to-door notifications. Between April and end-August 7,686 evacuation notices were delivered province-wide by SARs.

In the case of the Eagle Bluff wildfire once it became clear what the initial area was that would be coming under evacuation order the realization quickly gelled that “it was going to be a long night,” said Kyle Fossett, team lead with the Oliver/Osoyoos Search and Rescue (OOSAR).

Although Fossett was out of town during that period he was getting regular updates and checking in that everyone was okay.

“So we pulled in our team and we brought in members from Penticton as well because of the size of the general area,” he said.

Some of their members wear more than one hat, with one a member of the Anarchist Mountain Fire Department, another with BC Wildfire, and another with Oliver Fire Department.

Altogether they had about 10 or 12 members from OOSAR and 8-10 from Penticton Search and Rescue.

“We are involved in evacuation, we’ll get a heads up from the local government. So in our case, it was theTown of Osoyoos and the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen,” as they are the authorities that make the call on evacuation alerts and orders.

They provide the SAR teams with a map and the list of the addresses on where they’re going and the official evacuation order letters.

“And then we'll send members out and we're going door to door and with that letter, basically telling them there is a forest fire. Sometimes people are not even aware of it because you know, maybe their front window looks to the east and they've been looking at a beautiful day right across Osoyoos Lake at Anarchist Mountain, or maybe they’ve just woken up because they’re working the night shift,” he says.

Once they’ve delivered the order they will then put colour coded ribbons at the end of the driveways. “That way we know whether that house has been evacuated, or maybe there's people that need some assistance coming out, or there was nobody home.”

Because of the number of different agencies involved in a wildfire, Fossett says they need to clearly indicate the flagging tape is from them. “There's only so many colours of flagging tape out there. What our blue means might be completely different to what it means for BC Wildfire.

“We can put a blue on there that says this family is not willing to leave while BC Wildfire could look at the blue and to them it means that this house has sprinkler setup in place already. So two very different things. We just make sure that when they look at it, they know who hung it,” he adds.

He notes that people don’t have to leave when there is an evacuation order, but if there are minors in the household then by law they must be evacuated. “And if you are staying on your property stay out of the way of firefighters.”

Fossett cited the example of the Shuswap area which during the height of the Adams Lake wildfire saw many homeowners stay on their property. “BC Wildfire was trying to do backburns and aerial work and if the bird dog or someone comes in and sees people on the ground they would call off water or retardant drops which disrupts the firefighting activity.

He says they do face pushback from homeowners sometimes. “

We just make a note that that house are staying. We tell them we’re not leaving and if we see that there is a minor there we will let them know and we will call back to our command to let the RCMP know that there is a minor at that particular house.”

Because of the proximity and speed of the fire, the Dividend Ridge subdivision was done as a tactical evacuation by BC Wildfire and Osoyoos Fire Department, he says.

“When we did the evacuation orders for the Kilpoola area there was a team that went in and asked for another team to come up and kind of watch the fire for them at that point.

“Because of where they saw the fire growth was happening and the speed it was coming it was like, ‘we just want another set of eyes here in case we have to turn around and hightail it out of there.’”

He adds this is part of the training SAR members undergo: “If you don't feel safe pull back to a safe area. Get to a safe area.”

The OOSAR also carried out the evacuation orders for the Upper Park Rill Creek wildfire between Twin Lakes and Willowbrook.

“On the evacuation side of things it was a relatively quiet year for our team. I know across the province there were thousands and thousands of evacuation orders carried out by SAR groups, not including local fire departments, RCMP and conservation and natural resource officers, it was insane,” he says.

When the West Kelowna wildfire erupted Fossett says the OOSAR expected to get a call out, but it never came as they managed with Vernon, Central Okanagan and Penticton SARs. Similarly with the Crater Creek wildfire near Keremeos the number of properties was small and Penticton SAR handled it.

“We were ready. We had everything out. Our ribbon was stocked up and our clipboards were filled up,” he chuckles.

He also offers some advice that if ever you are put on evacuation alert, register ahead of time with the Emergency Support Service (ESS) program.

“Even if you're on an order and you leave and you've got somebody who's got a place that’s safe to go and you don't need any of the services that are being offered, register with the reception centre anyway. That way if they need to contact you for any reason, they've got a way to get a hold of you,” he says.

He also urges people to try not to get upset or frustrated at the ESS volunteers because they are often under a lot of pressure in a short time span.

It is stressful for people, he fully acknowledges.

“You get a knock on the door with some saying there’s a fire you’re got to go, you’ve got to leave your home.”

There are a lot of people in this part of the valley that live in the interface zone, he notes, saying it’s a good idea to have a meeting spot that everyone in the family knows. For example, in Oliver, the parking lot behind the No Frills.

That way if there is an evacuation order “you and your spouse, your parent, your child is maybe in town at work, getting groceries, or out at a friend's house and this way you have somewhere you can all meet."

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