How wildfire in British Columbia’s Shuswap is fanning political flames

How wildfire in British Columbia's Shuswap is fanning political flames
Thick smoke from the Lower East Adams Lake wildfire fills the air and a Canadian flag flies in the wind as RCMP officers on a boat patrol Shuswap Lake, in Scotch Creek, B.C., on Sunday, August 20, 2023.

The wildfire that has been rampaging through the Shuswap region of the B.C. Interior has also sparked a fight over whether local Opposition MLAs have been encouraging residents to disobey firefighters, or if the government is refusing to listen to critics of its response to the fires.

The Bush Creek East fire has destroyed or significantly damaged nearly 170 properties, and authorities have called it a major front in the province’s worst fire season on record. A BC Wildfire Service official said the blaze swept through the Shuswap like a tornado.

But it has also been in focus because of some residents’ decision to defy evacuation orders and instead stay to defend their homes from the flames.

The New Democrat government accused the Opposition BC United of supporting residents who refused to obey the North Shuswap evacuation order, while the Opposition denied the accusation and said it was calling on the government to work with the community, which it eventually did.

“People elect MLAs in various areas of the province to be their voices, especially in a time of crisis and worry,” said Peter Milobar, BC United finance critic who represents a Kamloops riding.

He said the government refused to listen to locally elected MLAs who were “simply conveying back to the government where their shortcomings in a disaster are, and where the problems are, that’s a problem.”

Milobar was one of three area BC United MLAs, including Greg Kyllo and Todd Stone, who issued a statement last week calling for “critical supplies” to be sent to North Shuswap residents who stayed to fight the fire, despite an evacuation order.

“These individuals should receive the supplies they need to continue to protect properties and structures in their communities. This government must order an end to this blockade of vital resources immediately,” it said.

Milobar said he and his colleagues “weren’t politicizing” and instead were “conveying exactly what we were hearing on the ground.”

“Really, at its core, what we were asking for was either more provincial resources in that area, which were obviously needed, or a way to bring the locals that have the right skill set into the fray,” said Milobar. “And that’s actually what they wound up doing.”

Milobar said the statement was not encouraging residents to “civil disobedience,” or “to be law breakers.”

“If you don’t have a skill set to actually physically fight the fire, you should not be in the area. You need to leave,” he said.

In recent days, North Shuswap residents with firefighting skills have indeed been recruited to work with government firefighters in the area, BC Wildfire Service officials said.

But New Democrat MLA Ravi Parmar said the BC United statement had encouraged residents to “disobey orders from emergency responders,” and had put “the lives of first responders and families on the line.”

“To have MLAs encouraging people to disobey those orders is ridiculous and those MLAs, like Greg Kyllo, should be ashamed of themselves,” said Parmar, recently elected in a byelection in the Victoria-area Langford-Juan de Fuca riding.

“It’s been a bizarre week for the BC United Party,” he said, pointing to a social media post by the party’s Kelowna-area MLA Renee Merrifield blasting Conservative Leader John Rustad for supporting people who battle wildfires threatening their homes.

Yet Kyllo, Stone and Milobar’s statement had supported residents doing the same, Parmar said.

Parmar also said a BC United fundraising effort for wildfire evacuees through the Canadian Red Cross appeared be an effort by the party to collect potential voter information.

But Dean Pogas, director of communications for the BC and Yukon Red Cross, said in a statement that “no personal donation information has been provided, or will be provided, to the BC United party.”

No names of donors would be provided to the party as a result of the fundraiser, only dates and dollar amounts, Pogas said.

Milobar said the government has been talking about wildfire mitigation improvements since 2017, but little has been accomplished.

He said the residents of West Kelowna and North Shuswap who lost homes this summer now join the likes of Lytton, Monte Lake and White Rock Lake, which sustained wildfire property losses in recent years. The Central Okanagan Regional District says 189 properties in the Kelowna region have been destroyed or significantly damaged by this season’s wildfires.

“The reality is they haven’t actually changed or modernized what they are doing in any significant way, to adapt to what we’re seeing playing out in our communities every year,” Milobar said.

Parmar acknowledged the summer has presented challenges for the province, and he expected the government to undertake a review.

“There’s certainly going to be time post this wildfire season for British Columbia, for our ministers and the premier to look at what’s happened and how we can be better prepared,” he said. “It’s clear with climate change we need to be better prepared. That we need to be doing more work in regards to the impacts, like wildfires, atmospheric rivers and other natural disasters.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian PressDirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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