The BC Wildfire Service has confirmed it temporarily reassigned crews fighting fires in the province’s Shuswap region after protesters showed up at an RCMP roadblock Wednesday evening in what police say was an effort to “overwhelm” the blockade.
Police say the protesters challenged officers at the blockade on the Trans-Canada Highway, after “threats of violence” against emergency workers prompted the Mounties to increase their presence there.
Some residents of the Shuswap in B.C.’s Interior have been refusing to obey wildfire evacuation orders, prompting officials to warn that they are putting lives at risk and compromising firefighting strategies in a zone where hundreds of firefighters are deployed.
Videos posted to social media show about 20 protesters at a blockade of police cars in an evacuation zone near the lakeside community of Sorrento. Protesters appearing to record the situation on their cellphones surround police and demand to be let through.
Wildfire service information officer Forrest Tower said at a briefing Thursday that crews fighting the Bush Creek East fire in the Shuswap were temporarily reassigned based on information from police that the area was unsafe for wildfire personnel.
Social media posts about the withdrawal were later deleted by the wildfire service, Tower said, in an effort “to not give something steam that didn’t and doesn’t deserve to have it,” he said. “We know the power of social media in terms of making something bigger than it might be.”
The tensions over the evacuation orders that cover about 11,000 people in the Shuswap come as directives ease elsewhere in B.C.’s Interior, with firefighters reporting good progress thanks to rain and other favourable weather.
All evacuation orders in Kelowna were lifted Thursday, just under a week after devastating fires ravaged communities around Lake Okanagan, destroying almost 200 homes and forcing thousands to flee.
More than 300 properties in the District of Lake Country have also seen their evacuation orders rescinded.
However, evacuation orders and alerts remain in place in West Kelowna and other communities around the lake, Central Okanagan Emergency Operations said in a statement.
Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting hailed the lifting of the evacuation orders in his community.
“It has been our goal for the last seven days to get you people, to get all our residents home safely, and we couldn’t be more excited to see this happen,” he told a briefing.
Firefighting efforts in the Interior have been aided by ample rain that fell Tuesday and Wednesday over the Okanagan and Shuswap regions.
Brad Litke, a BC Wildfire Service senior operations officer, said at the briefing there had been “significant progress” in the battle against the fires around Lake Okanagan. Up to seven millimetres of rainfall Wednesday had helped firefighters, he said.
About 370 fires were burning across B.C. Thursday, including 14 “wildfires of note” that are highly visible or pose a threat to people or property.
The focus of the battle is now the Shuswap, about 450 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. BC Wildfire Service crews there are fighting the 410-square-kilometre Bush Creek East fire that has destroyed an unknown number of properties and triggered evacuation orders covering about 3,000 properties.
Tower said they have more than 139 wildland firefighters, 112 structural protection firefighters, 50 pieces of structural protection equipment, and around 70 pieces of heavy equipment involved in the fight against the Bush Creek East fire.
But Tower said the numbers would be “dynamic” over the coming days, and that 100 additional firefighters from Mexico were expected on Friday.
Complicating matters have been the tensions over evacuation orders, with some Shuswap residents refusing to comply and saying they felt abandoned by authorities.
The blockade protesters are seen in videos telling officers they do not believe politicians have the right to prevent them from using the road, and that it is illegal for the RCMP to block it.
The group, which organized itself on Facebook, had hoped to rally enough support to push through the blockade to enter the evacuation zone, saying they planned to support those who have chosen to remain inside to protect their property.
“This is a warning to all you Canadians out there, this is what’s coming,” one man says after confronting police in a video of the incident, referring to the RCMP blockade at the intersection of Blind Bay Road.
The group dispersed after about an hour. RCMP say in a statement that officers de-escalated the situation safely, without incident, adding no one was arrested and no charges are expected to stem from the confrontation.
The Mounties have stepped up their presence “in response to ongoing efforts by some individuals who have undermined BC Wildfire Service fire suppression work through the movement of vital equipment, and have (compromised) emergency personnel safety through threats of violence,” the police statement says.
The area under evacuation order is not safe due to active wildfires, as well as damage to power lines and unstable trees and structures, it says.
RCMP Cpl. James Grandy said in an interview Thursday that it’s a “stressful situation” for both first responders and the public, and “in other communities, we’ve had great patience and understanding and co-operation.”
He said the situation has since subsided and the situation is back to “relative normal,” though police have diverted resources to the roadblock area outside Sorrento where the protesters showed up. Grandy said the protesters weren’t locals.
Derek Sutherland with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District said he’s heard from residents who were “adamantly” opposed to the protest action.
“They are not supportive of this freedom convoy that was coming to the area and were not a part of it,” he said. “At no point did I ever think that this was our residents. I think there is an element out there that grabs onto these certain things, and I think that’s what this was.”
B.C. Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said Wednesday the BC Wildfire Service had “opened a dialogue” to understand why some Shuswap residents are defying evacuation orders, but the directives carry legal weight and defiance of them must end.
She said some local residents with skills to help battle fires are being recruited now to join the wildfire fight, but others must leave.