Upset ranchers and other rural residents near Clinton are banding together to call for an apology and compensation from the B.C. government, after controlled burns went wrong and led to untold losses of livestock and property.
The affected residents are unhappy with orders given to light up the controlled burn on Aug. 1 on the Hart Ridge Mountain near 20 Mile House during what they say were adverse wind conditions, which caused the fire to immediately jump Highway 97 and threaten nearby ranches and homes.
That fire rapidly expanded and moved south toward Highway 99 while travelling parallel to Highway 97, causing numerous evacuations and highway closures in a wide area.
They also say that the lives of rancher Greg Nyman and his entire herd of more than 100 cattle were unnecessarily put at risk when he was nearly caught by controlled burns on Hart Ridge while trying to move the cows to safety earlier that day.
Nyman had been allowed by fire officials to get up in the highlands before the burn to look for his cows. He was given three hours to search beginning at 9 a.m., but it took longer than planned and he did not get out until almost 1:30 p.m. The fire ended up being set around him and the cows he was able to find, about 60 animals: half his herd.
He was able to make it off the mountain safely, but he was forced to abandon his cows and does not know their fate.
“It just went unbelievably wrong,” he said. “The wind was blowing hard out of the northeast, and they were trying to burn to the northeast. I don’t know what kind of magic they thought was going to happen.
“They dropped these firebombs from a helicopter which, in high winds, is inherently wrong if you ask me. The fuel down there, the dryness level and the winds—it was a bad call.”
The BC Wildfire Service has said it is aware of the ranchers’ concerns, and that they may qualify for compensation.
In an email, a spokesperson for the service said, under the Wildfire Act, “People can be compensated for damage on private land for avoidable damaged caused by fire control by government. With regard to the Elephant Hill fire, staff have already reached out to the residents.”
Controlled burns are an essential and effective tool for fighting wildfires, and the BC Wildfire Service says safety, of personnel, the public, equipment, and all adjacent values, is the primary concern.
During a media call on Aug. 2, chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said conditions appeared ideal until the winds shifted dramatically, blowing embers west across Highway 97.
“We’ve been doing this on many fires across the province up until this point,” Skrepnek said. “The fact of the matter is that when fires get to this size, the use of controlled ignitions is one of the best tactics that we have in terms of trying to contain them. Unfortunately, in this instance, the winds just weren’t in our favour.”
But Nyman said the decision-making in this case was very poor; the shift in wind direction was obvious before the fire was set, he insisted.
“I’m numb, I just can’t get my head around it,” he said. “Most of my cows are either burnt up or are going to die from their injuries.”