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'You're not helping': Residents of B.C.'s Shuswap urged to stop seizing firefighting equipment

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As residents of B.C.'s Shuswap region work desperately to protect their homes, government officials are urging them to stop seizing equipment intended for provincial firefighting crews.

Over the weekend, the B.C. Wildfire Service reported that essential gear such as pumps, sprinklers, hoses and all-terrain vehicles has been disappearing in the North Shuswap area.

That includes sprinklers set up to prevent the Scotch Creek Bridge from catching fire, which have already been stolen three times.

"This bridge must be protected to allow safe access into and out of the area," the BCWS wrote on social media Sunday.

"We understand frustration and fear exist, but the professionals relying on this equipment need it to continue to fight these fires."

On Monday, Premier David Eby said tampering with firefighters' equipment disrupts response plans developed by provincial experts, and urged those responsible to stop immediately.

"We'll put the best possible understanding on this – that people think they're helping," Eby said. "They are not. You're not helping if you're moving firefighting equipment."

The region's Bush Creek East wildfire recently combined with the Lower East Adams Lake blaze – both part of what officials have dubbed the Adams complex – and is now estimated at 41,000 hectares in size.

Some properties have already been lost to the flames, though authorities have not confirmed how many.

Meanwhile, concerns have been coming from some in the North Shuswap evacuation zone that the province is not sending enough help to defend their homes, even with hundreds of firefighters battling the inferno.

'LOCALS HELPING LOCALS'

Celista resident Gordon Favell told CTV News the only people he's seen battling wildfires in his area – a small community on the north side of Shuswap Lake – are locals.

"We refuse to watch things burn," he said. "Yesterday I went across the street with a wheelbarrow full of water trying to put a spot fire out so it didn't start my neighbour's trailer on fire and start candling trees and start the whole process over."

Favell said some area residents have been grabbing any equipment they can find in their efforts to douse emerging fires and prevent further spread.

"It doesn't matter if it's yours, it doesn't matter if it's locked up – get it, put it to use, put some fires out," said Favell, who added that he has not touched provincial firefighting gear. "That's what's going on here, locals helping locals."

Favell said he and his neighbours would all much prefer to see firefighters doing the work they've been doing. 

HUNDREDS INVOLVED IN FIRE FIGHT

There have also been rumours spreading in the community that the province has chosen to prioritize the McDougall Creek wildfire threatening homes in the Kelowna area over the Bush Creek East blaze – something the B.C. Wildfire Service has adamantly denied.

Operations director Cliff Chapman said there were 385 people assigned to the Adams complex as of Monday afternoon, compared to 164 at McDougall Creek.

"Let me be very clear: we are not only prioritizing the McDougall fire," Chapman said. "We have multiple priority fires across the province."

The personnel involved in responding to the Adams complex include frontline firefighters, support staff, and more than 105 workers dedicated to protecting property, according to the BCWS website.

Officials have warned that the appropriation of provincial gear is resulting in less efficient fire protection for the wider Shuswap community.

Experts who specialize in defending structures from wildfires have chosen to place equipment in locations "where it is most effective and (covers) the largest area possible," the BCWS wrote on social media.

"Gear that would protect dozens of homes is being moved to areas that are ineffective," the service said, adding that some equipment "has disappeared entirely and is suspected to be stolen."

The government said RCMP patrols were ramped up over the weekend to address the issue of seized firefighting equipment, and urged anyone who witnesses criminal activity to report it immediately.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Kaija Jussinoja 

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