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Thousands sign petition demanding change to B.C. wildfire response

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Thousands of British Columbians have signed a petition urging the province to make changes to its wildfire response plan.

Jim Cooperman helped organize the petition and delivered it to the B.C. legislature on Tuesday.

"The BC Wildfire Service has been failing miserably for the last 10 years,” he said.

It’s a bold statement the environmental author and researcher stands by.

The devastating Lower East Adams Lake wildfire burned just kilometers from Cooperman’s house last summer, and he witnessed firsthand how quickly the fire spread in his community. The blaze damaged or destroyed nearly 200 homes in the Shuswap as the province faced the most destructive wildfire season on record.

The petition makes four recommendations, including allowing residents to stay behind and fight fires after evacuations have been ordered. The decision of people in the Shuswap to defy orders sparked controversy and some condemnation from officials last year – but Cooperman says it was the right move.

"If it wasn't for the local residents, we would have seen far more homes burned, far more properties destroyed,” he said. “These local people were heroes. And how were they treated by the government? By the BC wildfire service? They turned the North Shuswap into a police state,” Cooperman told TV News.

"Many of the fires that we've seen destroy communities could have been put out by local contractors, but the policy has been that they weren’t allowed to do that.”

The MLA for Salmon Arm and Shuswap, Greg Kyllo, acknowledges that evacuations are ordered in the name of safety for first responders and residents alike. But he says many of his constituents have useful equipment and skills.

"These folks who live in these communities, many of them are loggers, roadbuilders, They've got quads and four wheelers in the driveway, they've got boats and alternative modes of egress so it's not certainty a one size fits everybody for every wildfire,” he said.

“Residents should not be villainized for doing what I think anybody would do.”

According to the regional district, some work has already been done to explore how locals can be better integrated into fighting wildfires.

"We did start working with BC Wildfire last year to work on protocols where it would appropriate to have residents stay behind, we worked on some training,” said Derek Sutherland the general manager of community and protective services of the Columbia-Shuswap District.

“It’s a really complex issue,” he said. “Quite frankly my concern with it is public safety and safety of first responders.”

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Forests said, in an email that the wildfire service is “is willing and able to work with skilled, trained and experienced individuals in local communities who want to coordinate efforts which has happened in multiple communities in the past.” However, a spokesperson also said that trained, experienced and dedicated wildland firefighters are crucial and that the service “does not have a volunteer firefighter program.”

In September of 2023, the province created a Wildfire Task Force to review the response during the record-breaking season.

At the time, premier David Eby said he wanted the task force to implement on-the-ground changes and deliver resources where and when needed.

Asked on Tuesday, the province could not provide a timeline for when the task force will release its final recommendations or report.

Cooperman’s petition also asked the province to reinstate the fire warden system, as well as undergo an independent review of controlled burns that took place during the summer.

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