Ian Shu got the call from his neighbour on Gambier Island around 10:15 a.m. on Jan. 30 — just a few homes down from Shu, a cabin was on fire.
Shu is the fire chief for the Gambier Estates neighbourhood. He took a look outside, and could see the black smoke billowing and moving quickly. Still in his pajamas, he ran over to help.
“It was unfortunately already too late. The whole building was completely engulfed in flames,” Shu said.
Four neighbours, including Shu, arrived quickly with their fire response equipment (paid for by the residents themselves). Although it was a sunny day, Jan. 30 was cold and their water supply was frozen. Instead, they pumped seawater onto the flames — hurrying to stop the spread to nearby propane tanks.
The homeowners were not present, and there were no injuries.
Shu said the surrounding neighbourhoods of Halkett Bay are connected by a road and use a Whatsapp messaging group for emergency situations.
“Unfortunately, there’s only a few of us that really knew how to operate the equipment,” Shu said. When he took over fire coordination duties from another volunteer last year, Shu had about two hours of community-led training. Since then, his training has been through on-the-ground experience.
More neighbours arrived to help. “By the time we had everything set up, it was just a pile of rubble, but it was still burning,” Shu said, so they worked to keep it from spreading.
The house was gone before noon. By 3 p.m., the fire was mostly out, so a neighbour stayed up through the night to make sure it didn’t reignite. It was all over by 8 a.m. the next morning.
The smoke had been visible to passing ferries and skiers at Cypress Mountain Resort.
BC Wildfire Service received reports of the fire, but did not attend. Marg Drysdale, a fire information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre, said BC Wildfire generally responds to fires in forested areas, but not to structure fires.
“A lot of times if we get called on structure fires in areas where there's forested lands around it, if we are concerned that it will spread to the forest, our people will attend. However, because of the reports they were getting, and the general weather, et cetera, we learned that there were no reports of it spreading to the forest area. So they did not attend,” Drysdale said.
Instead, the response is up to the local fire jurisdiction — but Gambier Island does not fall under such a jurisdiction. Instead, residents form their own fire protection groups.
The Jan. 30 fire was in the same area of Gambier Island that saw a wildfire in August 2022 that came close to residences. That fire drew a response from BC Wildfire and residents alike.
“We were just very grateful that they showed up,” Shu said of the August fire. “I think we were, in a way, lucky that day that there wasn’t something else going on.”
“I know it’s not in our property taxes to have any fire department here, but it seems like… we could use some more help.”