Heather Pederson wonders if Pressy Lake residents will ever get the answers they are owed about why the B.C. Wildfire Service didn’t stop the Elephant Hill wildfire from devastating their community.
The massive fire started July 6 near Ashcroft, and scorched a 100-kilometre path of destruction, before arriving Aug. 12 in Pressy Lake, 30 km east of 70 Mile House. There, it burned 24 outbuildings and 33 of the 71 houses.
Pederson, a law enforcement officer from Chilliwack, said her family’s cabin survived, but she has actively searched for accountability through Freedom of Information after officials refused to answer by other means. Pederson joins a growing number of British Columbians — like retired teacher Dave McNab, trappers Wayne and Leilah Kirsh and hunting guide Stewart Fraser — who are speaking out after B.C.’s worst wildfire season.
“It’s hard to see your community going through what they’re going through,” Pederson told theBreaker. “While as fortunate as we are, not everybody’s in the same boat. Overall there’s quite a sense of loss for everyone.”
Her parents, who spend April to November at the cabin, were evacuated July 29. They were among those assured by members of the Comox fire department working for BCWS that pumps and sprinklers would be installed to protect the buildings.
“They went around cabin-to-cabin, they spoke to other residents, they had a plan,” she said. “All their hoses and pumps were in place at the forestry campsite at the end of the lake.”
Four days after the fire roared through, photos of properties posted on Facebook showed nothing had been done to water the buildings. “You could see there wasn’t a pump, there wasn’t a hose, there wasn’t a sprinkler.”
Pressy Lake’s Sheena Wilkie expressed her frustration about the summer spell of poor communication in a September letter to Premier John Horgan.
“Despite hundreds of calls, emails and messages, we were given no information and it didn’t seem like they even knew we were there,” Wilkie wrote. “At every turn, we have been stonewalled and stymied.”
Instead of answering questions, agencies referred them to FOI.
“We need to know if anything was done to protect our homes, and if not, why wasn’t it?” Wilkie wrote. “These are reasonable questions. Questions that taxpayers should not have to jump through hoops to get an answer to.”
Pederson filed two FOI requests: one for Forests Ministry records about structural protection units at Pressy Lake and another for wildfire investigation reports from the Office of the Fire Commissioner. Pederson said she was met initially met with resistance.
Fraser-Nicola BC Liberal MLA Jackie Tegart challenged NDP Citizens’ Services Minister Jinny Sims in Question Period on Sept. 21 to overrule the bureaucrats who asked Pederson to withdraw those requests. Pederson had been told it would be difficult and there were internal investigations. Sims had vowed to expedite information for those affected by the wildfires.
Nearly a month later, on Oct. 16, Tegart quizzed Sims about the unreasonable delays that meant Pederson would be waiting until at least the last day of November.
“Delayed by months. The opposite of expedited,” Tegart said.
Sims said investigations were in progress, but information would be released as soon as permitted by the RCMP.
Pederson eventually got 500 pages with a pledge of more to come. (Some of those documents are below). Most of them, however, aren’t relevant to Pressy Lake.
Most of the documents were about billing for water bomber flights, weather forecasts and fire suppression activities in the nearby communities. It did include a handwritten assessment for Pressy Lake and an incident commander’s journal entry that referenced Pressy Lake.
Adding insult to injury, however, is an Aug. 14 situation report that called it “Prissy Lake.”
On Oct. 27, Kamloops Fire Centre manager Rob Schweitzer issued a memo to Pressy Lake residents. He offered condolences, but not apologies.
Schweitzer wrote that a structural protection specialist had been deployed there on July 27 with a crew. They were deployed not by his office, but by the Cariboo Fire Centre to respond to another fire burning out of control north of Pressy Lake.
“The assessment of Pressy Lake area was never completed as [Jim Lake wildfire] was contained on July 28 and these resources were redeployed to another fire,” Schweitzer wrote. A structure protection specialist was deployed to Pressy Lake on Aug. 8, but the statement offered no more details.