A group of communities located by Ootsa Lake are feeling the heat from large wildfires progressing towards their properties and feel deserted by the government and BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) from their apparent inaction.
Several communities near the Nadina Lake and Verdun Mountain wildfires have been placed under Evacuation Order from the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) under the advisement of the BCWS, however, there are individuals in the rural community who refuse to vacate.
Cori Dewijn and her predecessors have had a stake in Wisteria, a small community near Ootsa Lake, for over a century and now she fears it will go up in flames.
"There hasn't been any fire support. They've had the fire suppression crews come and [do] some of the houses but not all and other than that there's been no firefighters, no air support . . . they said to all of us, ‘we're just going to let it burn, it's going to meet up with the Verdun fire and that's that,’ so it's been a very, very hard time," explained Dewijn.
Dewijn claims that the crews allocated to the two fires located in the Northwest region have been focusing their efforts on different fronts away from the community and she's frustrated by the government's lack of support.
The communities typically rely on agriculture, cattle ranches and woodlots as a source of income, and are concerned that if they don't defend their properties, they will lose their livelihood, explains Dewijn. Many have taken the wildfire suppression efforts into their own hands.
"Everybody's entire livelihood — it's not like people have [a traditional job] — their job is in the community, they're ranchers and loggers, they have woodlots and this time of year all the cattle are out on the range, so to try and herd up all the cattle is impossible," Dewijn states, noting that they have hundreds of cattle across a vast, open landscape to retrieve.
"Everybody would leave if we felt that the government and the fire service was fighting [the wildfires], if they were helping in any way, then we could leave and know that our land and our animals and things were being defended — and they're just nowhere to be seen."
Dewijn listed a few properties that have gone up in flames, including her own land, guide cabins and "millions of dollars" in woodlots.
The remaining community has banded together with the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, which has been offering support and resources to communities in need.
However, despite the "amazing" camaraderie that's cohesively driving the community through the difficult time, Dewijn describes the current state of the community like a "war zone."
"It's kind of like a war zone out there right now, I guess, would be how to imagine it and it's a lot of people fighting for themselves and feeling very let down by the government who isn't there for them. It's like we're not living in Canada, it's a very odd feeling."
Erin Catherall, Fire Information Officer for the Babine Complex Incident Management team that is assigned to the two wildfires, was unable to confirm where the firefighters and support were placed on the fires.
Catherall did state that there are a combined 128 firefighters and 117 pieces of heavy equipment allocated between the two with over 100 Structural Protection Specialists on site.
In response to the lack of sprinklers that Dewijn was concerned about, Catherall did agree that resources have been a challenge but added that Structural Protection Specialists "prioritized deployment of structural protection units (SPU) based on the assessment of how defensible each property is," as well as where the needs are the greatest and is dependent on SPU resources available.
Officials from the RDBN, RCMP and BCWS held a town hall this week to address other concerns from the community and provide factual information on fire behaviour and forecasted weather, which can be watched below.
To the knowledge of the BCWS, all of the community members from the area that were previously conducting independent suppression operations have joined the BCWS efforts to subdue the approaching fire from damaging further property.
Neither the RDBN nor the BCWS were sure of how many structures had been lost during the fire, as a total damage assessment has not yet been conducted, but Taylor Bachrach, spokesperson for the RDBN, stated: "it's certainly significant."
Bachrach added that the RDBN has been actively working with the residents that refused to vacate to ensure they had the necessities of life throughout the unfortunate situation and stated the district is conducting searches for the livestock still roaming in the area.
"One of the roles the regional district has taken on is evacuating as much livestock from the Evacuation Order area as possible. To date, the regional district team has moved over 5,000 head of livestock, many of them cattle, but also horses and pigs and a whole variety of other stuff. That's part of the operation, first priority is protecting human lives and making sure people get out of the way of the fire but they're also folks working on getting livestock out of the way as well."
There are still a number of individuals not enlisted by the BCWS that are not abiding by the Evacuation Order, but Dewijn is not one of them.
"I am currently in Smithers where we own a house. Our families land, which has been owned by us since 1909, has just burned up by the growing Nadina fire which is even worse with the high winds."
The Nadina wildfire, already gauged at 78,331 hectares, is anticipating increased fire behaviour this week and fire officials are concerned about the inherent safety risk of the individuals staying but will continue to protect them as much as possible.