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Gambier Islanders, BC Wildfire spring into action to prevent wildfire spread

BC Wildfire, helicopters and locals responded to a spot fire started on Aug. 18

A wildfire on the southeast side of Gambier Island, near Halkett Bay, sparked a quick response from residents and BC Wildfire in the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 18. 

Christi Howes, an information assistant for the Coastal Fire Centre, told Coast Reporter the fire is considered a spot fire, burning in heavy timber. The smoke was highly visible. While the fire was contained by the following morning, crews and a helicopter remain on site.

By Aug. 22, the fire had been declared out. It had grown to be about 0.22 hectares. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

On Aug. 18, two initial attack crews were sent to the scene with helicopters and air tankers. 

BC Wildfire asks anyone who sees a fire to report it right away, and says sending a photo of the fire via the BC Wildfire Service mobile app. The app will automatically generate co-ordinates of the user's current location, and is used to prioritize the service's resources.

“That really helps us because we can read a lot more into a picture than a phone call,” Howes said. 

Locals on the ground

At around 5 p.m. on Thursday, the neighbourhoods of Fircom Plateau and Sunset Estates were alerted to the fire through the South East Gambier Emergency Response Whatsapp group (an encrypted instant messaging platform). The fire and its smoke were visible from passing ferries and Bowen Island. 

Jennifer Henderson, who lives with her husband on Gambier Island full-time, said about 25 to 30 community members kicked into high gear scouting out the fire, and asking people to bring whatever equipment they have — fire extinguishers, portable water backpacks and standardized fire pumps, even an excavator. 

The fire was close to the Fircom Plateau development, and only about 200 feet from a structure. Community members from farther away let the nearby residents know where they could access more resources on their own properties.

“People headed up there in a somewhat coordinated fashion because we didn't want people to endanger themselves in any way, or become trapped if it became worse quickly,” she said. “We all just kind of did our best and everybody was amazing and patient and we had a lot of brains come together and figure things out with different abilities and strengths.”

The residents are grateful for BC Wildfire Service’s quick and essential response, saying they were able to come about an hour later. 

“It was a great relief to see the first helicopter fly overhead and know that they were coming to help,” Henderson said.

Bob Ostiguy, the Gambier Fire Equipment Group (GFEG) coordinator, says the island’s fire truck — which was built by a resident and debuted last year — is on the other side of the island and there is no road access for the apparatus to get to the fire’s location. 

Locals instead had to rely on their own pumps and the assortment of equipment they’ve acquired over the years, Ostiguy said. Many people called the fire in, and Ostiguy sent the coordinates to BC Wildfire. 

“The locals really went out of their way to be able to do whatever they could to restrict the fire and I think they got there quick enough that it didn't spread,” he said.

Gambier Island is outside the fire protection region of local governments. Residents can still access the Sunshine Coast Regional District’s (SCRD) free FireSmart assessments, which Henderson said have helped residents prepare.

Ostiguy said the situation “highlights the issue of people that live on Gambier, Keats and Thormanby, that the SCRD does not supply us any funding to be able to be proactive in fighting fires. We can’t get grants for tanks, we can’t get grants for equipment, we can’t get any support that way.

“We’re on our own. The fact that we responded this way and saved the fire from spreading is a great thing, but you shouldn't have to rely on citizens who are untrained to be able to deal with forest fires or whatever when it threatens a community.”

Henderson says the experience was a “wake up call.” For a neighbourhood like Fircom Plateau, which is relatively new and fairly disconnected from the more established areas of the island, the risk of wildfire has been increasing with drier summers and more people coming to the islands.

“We are so vulnerable on these islands. Something like this really hits home that you are on your own for a period of time and we're really fortunate BC Wildfire Service was available to respond so quickly. It might not always be like that,” she said. “We appreciate any kind of support in terms of resources, whether that's funding education, training, or equipment that can be used to help us help ourselves.”

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