A Port Moody fire crew rotated home Sunday from West Kelowna after spending a week protecting homes from the McDougall Creek Fire.
The four-man crew put in 12-hour shifts every night from Aug. 20 to 27, guarding an unfamiliar community more than 360 kilomteres away from home.
They were led by Cpt. Rob Shoucair, an 18-year veteran on his first deployment assisting the province in the effort to control wildfires burning in B.C.’s Interior.
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“You don’t really know what to expect when you get here,” Shoucair said. “Our department, our members saw what was going on. I think firefighters, it’s just in our blood to want to be here and help.”
While B.C. Wildfire Service firefighters are on the frontlines, Port Moody’s crew was part of a structure protection task force whose responsibility was to protect interface-adjacent homes from remaining hotspots and other risks.
The task force was headed by an assistant chief from West Vancouver, and consisted of crews from Port Moody, Cranbrook and New Westminster.
Meeting every night at 6 p.m., the task force would review objectives and current weather conditions before assigning crews to a specific area along a 10-kilometre stretch.
Winds, temperature and humidity have been a major factor in the rapid spread of the West Kelowna wildfires, which is currently estimated at more than 12,000 hectares.
A total of 189 properties have been partially or fully destroyed, including 69 in West Kelowna, four in Kelowna, 19 in Westbank First Nation, and 94 in the Regional District of Central Okanagan.
Port Moody is one of 30 other municipalities who have sent crews to help assist the fight against some 370 ongoing fires across the province.
Shoucair said his crew was installing sprinkler protections to keep interface areas moist and prevent burning embers, rolling debris or any other fire source from igniting.
Each crew has different specialized equipment: Port Moody fire engine’s pumping capability was paired with Cranbrook’s 500-gallon tender, capable of carrying water to areas with no fire hydrants. He added there’s a lot of movement, and crews are sent wherever there is an operational need.
“It’s like a hockey game. You got your defenseman, your forwards, goalie and your coach – that’s your task force,” Shoucair said. “We’ve got this big toolbox, our firetruck, and we figure out how to get things done.”
Their task force’s goal was to come out of the deployment with no homes lost in their area, Shoucair said.
When the Port Moody crew arrived on Aug. 20, Shoucair said the major blaze had already rolled through.
He added it must have been “overwhelming” for the Kelowna Fire Department before other resources were able to be brought in from around the province.
But what has stuck out most during their deployment was the local community, according to Shoucair.
“Everywhere we go, people . . . they want to come and hug us, want to thank us. The local businesses have been nothing short of incredible as far as looking after us,” he said.
During their first night, the crew was having difficulty breathing. When they went to pick up masks from Home Depot, the store refused payment, Shoucair said.
He said when they checked into a hotel, the other guests were people who had been evacuated from the same homes they were protecting every night.
“Everyone we’ve talked to is affected in some way by this fire,” Shoucair said. “Everybody wants to look after us, everybody wants to help us.”
When asked if he would volunteer again in the future, Shoucair said: “in a second.”
A second Port Moody fire crew have rotated in for another week-long deployment following the return of Shoucair’s crew.
Port Moody Chief Darcey O’Riordan described the ease at which they were able to find volunteers as “amazing.”
He said when the department put out the call through the union, the spots were filled within a couple of hours.
“Staff and firefighters have really stepped up . . . to fill in for the next couple of weeks,” he said. “When we see another community in crisis, you want to get up there as quick as you can.”
A total of 8,000 people in B.C. are still under evacuation orders from this season’s wildfires, down from a high of 27,000 last week, while 54,000 people are still on evacuation alerts, said Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma on Monday.
While officials say the situation has stabilized for the time being, hot and dry weather still pose significant risks.