Anarchist Mountain Fire Department chief reflects on a busy summer

Reflecting on summer of fire

It was a Saturday that started out pretty much like many weekends before for the Anarchist Mountain Fire Department (AMFD). The AMFD volunteers had just finished one of their regular practices up on the mountain when they started getting phone calls and noticed significant social media attention about the wildfire south of the border.

“We were actually watching this from the start,” says Urs Grob AMFD Fire Chief who notes they had a bird's eye view of what became the Eagle Bluff wildfire from atop Anarchist. “Later on, I was down in Osoyoos and I realized it was really windy and that gave it the opportunity to jump [the Similkameen River and then the border].

He then saw fire apparatus mustering from Osoyoos, Oliver along with RDOS and BC Wildfire Service personnel and equipment and then shortly after received a call requesting mutual assistance. “They called us then around eight o'clock, and we were about six or seven departments, I didn't see them all so I don't know how many exactly,” he says.

“And later that night they came from as far as Salmon Arm, from the North Okanagan, Central Okanagan. I don't know how many departments there were but there were a lot of departments down here Saturday night,” Grob says.

“The fire was going really fast because it was windy and that’s the number one driver for a fire,” he adds.

Noting that BC Wildfire was first on the scene, AMFD was deployed to an area above the golf course to do structure protection.

Grob notes that BC Wildfire had put a fire break in between the residential area and the wildfire and their job was to put out every spark and ember that came behind this line in order to ensure no fires were started past the fire guard.

The strong wind made this a challenge he said and “there was a lot of sagebrush and it goes fast, they burn pretty fast and it creates a lot of embers.”

Grob says the situation was similar to other fires they’ve experienced over the last few years, with the strong wind being a key factor with the Eagle Bluff wildfire.

He notes that because of the speed of the fire there wasn’t much time for organizing and planning, he says. “It wasn’t really a big setup Saturday night, the fire is coming and you try just to protect the houses.”

That time crunch meant there wasn’t an opportunity for a full command setup, but the requisite plan was in place guided by a task force leader from West Kelowna. He goes on to say it was well organized but it was “a little bit chaotic because nobody really knows what's going on that first night.”

This is not uncommon in such situations he notes, but with the several fire departments that answered the call that night (a number which grew in the following days), Grob says they were able to keep homes safe.

“It’s important to ask for this amount of resources because that's actually when you can attack the fire as hard as we did altogether this night. That really gives you a chance to protect the houses because 24 hours later the situation would be totally different.”

The call out for assistance was made by BC Wildfire because they have the resource lead list and fire departments who choose to be on the list can be called for assistance. Grob notes that in the South Okanagan there is a task force and mutual aid agreements, and “it’s key because as fast as you have resources on site the bigger your chances are,” in combating a fire he says.

In the case of the Eagle Bluff fire, the coordinated firefighting of BC Wildfire along with the several fire departments from the region doing structure protection meant no homes were lost despite the fire reaching within only a couple of metres of some houses.

“It’s not a good feeling, it’s a terrible feeling,” to lose a structure he says, citing personal experience from another fire. “So walking away without any loss on the Eagle Bluff wildfire, that's great.”

The Anarchist firefighters also deployed at the Crater Creek wildfire outside of Keremeos, the Adams Lake wildfire in the Shuswap area and earlier in the spring a crew was deployed up to Fort St. John.

Grob was also Task Force Lead assigned by BC Wildfire for the Upper Park Rill Creek wildfire between Twin Lakes and Willowbrook. An AMFD spokesperson added this was “a great opportunity to support the Willowbrook Fire Department who were there for us on the first day of the Nk’mip Creek wildfire of 2021.”

“I had the night shift, so that's normally quiet and we had good crews and we did a lot of patrols. We had a good outcome, there were some little flare ups so that kept us busy but it was good. Again he relates that the first night situation was a bit chaotic with a lot of departments and then “from the second day on, it was more organized and you get more structure in it,” he said.

This particular wildfire saw BC Wildfire deployments of fire departments from as far as Vancouver Island along with Williams Lake and Grand Forks, he noted.

When the department decides to accept a deployment the members are on site for a two week period which includes working 12-14 hour days. Grob notes that these deployments can be challenging not just because of the long hours in harsh conditions, but for example in the case of the Adams Lake wildfire the fire camp had to be evacuated as the fire swept over it.

“One of our officers who was the Engine Boss at Adams Lake had to flee the camp immediately as the fire came in and burned the camp. They lost their tents and sleeping bags and were moved to another area, but nobody was in danger,” he adds.

And in Osoyoos at the Eagle Bluff fire, “two of our officers who were on patrol for hot spots were on scene immediately when a car accident occurred just off the highway. Our officers were also medical first responders, so they attended to those injured in the vehicles until BC Ambulance arrived,” he said.

Because of the environment in the South Okanagan which makes it a high danger area when it comes to fires, local departments face difficulty in deploying to other areas. “We can't really send all our crews away. We still have to protect our area,” Grob says.

In the case of Fort St. John, this occurred in the spring when it was still green here with no wildfires. “So that's actually the main reason if you have areas that have less danger rating it's easier to go from there and not from the local ones.

“We try normally to go to the closer ones but like the one up north there was really so many fires up there and they needed the resources.”

The fire chief says these deployments are the best way for his department to get experience because in their own area, it's a little bit of a different story: “You always hope you don't have a fire but it's also a reason for training.”

For a few of his firefighters it was the first time to go on deployment and they came back saying it was a valuable experience in which they learned a lot. “Training can do a lot, but real fire that's just the difference.”

“I'm really happy with my department,” Grob says. “We have people that took two weeks holidays and they are passionate about what they're doing. Really great members and … we had a crew with more experience - I don't want to use the word older - and they stayed 14 days in a tent.”

In terms of helping out in the Cathedral Lakes, Twin Lakes and the Eagle Bluff fire near Osoyoos Grob says there’s particular satisfaction: “Especially the ones in the valley, giving aid to our neighbours and helping out and I mean as firefighters that's actually the main driver for us is to help.

“When I’m there and I see the passion, all these different members from all over BC it's just amazing to work together, the camaraderie is good.”

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