(Photo: David Quigley)

A perspective on wildfire mismanagement in B.C.

By Daniel Quigley

(20-Aug-2021) I would like to share my perspective of widespread mismanagement within the BC Wildfire Service.

First, I want to express that I feel some of the most brilliant fire managers and best firefighters who ever lived are from the BC Wildfire Service, and I have never once seen someone from BCWS who did not want to perform at their very best. I think they deserve our appreciation.

From my angle, mismanagement exists a little further up the ladder. Policies which direct their use of resources prevent them from hiring contractors, or utilizing private resources. This is likely why they are quick to import firefighters from out-of-province, because those are not private resources, those are public servants – union personnel like themselves. And those international folks also deserve our gratitude.

The province is not saving money using international crews. These crews are not free of cost. These crews come as part of a resource sharing agreement where B.C. sends firefighters in reciprocation. Taxpayers pay for those deployments, so this program has considerable costs. And questionable value.

Exchanging skills and ideas are good things, but when the BCWS refuses to allow private resources to participate in the process and places roadblocks in the way of available training, that just smells of union protectionism – or elitism – or a lover scorned. It’s weird. And objectively, does the program function as anything more than a vacation exchange – a seemingly impractical luxury considering the BCWS are allowing local resources to deteriorate?

Other jurisdictions provide opportunities to private-sector resources. Alberta has a training facility for wildland firefighters, including a rappel tower, gymnasiums, lecture halls and an immersive fire simulator. This is where I had to go for more advanced fire training. I couldn’t take that training in B.C. because BCWS won’t allow contractors to train with them or in their facilities. Why is that?

The effectiveness of firefighters is drastically reduced while operating outside their native climate. This was a lesson learned by the Americans when they centralized their resources in Idaho and found significant skill gaps when deploying to Alaska. The difference in fire management strategies between climate zones are extremely variant. B.C.’s Southern Interior crews must learn to fight fires without water, in grassy, Ponderosa Pine/Douglas Fir stands, where the duff layer is only five to 10 centimetres deep — ideal for digging fire guards by hand. In those climates, handguards are a primary strategy for control.

A 2.5-hour drive north of Kamloops would bring us to Blue River and its Interior Cedar/Hemlock forest. The behavior of the fire is going to be drastically different there. Fire strategies near Blue River are likely to include pumps and hoses because access to water is usually plentiful. I think we BCers can boast we have the most versatile and universally functional wildland firefighters in the world. But if the differences in fire strategies are that wide within a three-hour drive, how different would they be in another country?

How fair is it to the South African exchange delegate to be thrust into our coastal rainforests and appointed as the Incident Commander – the highest ranking fire official – and expected to stop an unprecedented raging torrent of flames? How could anyone perform while handcuffed by policies and procedures which prevent them from utilizing local resources? Even with resources, how could we expect them to properly select specialized assets like certified danger tree fallers or a Coulson Aircrane. when to use a feller buncher, or where ground conditions become perilous for bunchers? The foreign exchangers do not have this knowledge. They are not (all) capable of these decisions. Yet, BC Wildfire is choosing to appoint these “fish out of water” to command the most destructive fires B.C. has ever seen. It’s a good thing they’re awesome.

It appears to me that BC Wildfire has spun quite a tall tale about who is qualified and who is not. They have split the firefighting world into two categories: Type 1 and Type 2 firefighters. To the media, they will say that Type 1 refers to a more elite group of highly trained crews, whereas Type 2’s are more like a reserve force, inadequate for tasks like supervision or coordination. But a little digging will reveal Type 1 and 2 categories have nothing to do with training or ability. Type 1 refers to B.C.’s own internal forces – the only people on the line permitted to wear red shirts and blue pants. But Type 1 will also apply to their international exchange partners. What’s the common denominator? Public service unions, to the exclusion of contractors. What we’re seeing is the refusal of public service personnel to use contracted, non-union resources. If such is the case, this is called union protectionism.

Now, I’m pro-union, or at least the concept of it. I have been a union member. I think unions are important in preserving the power of individuals against corporate interests, at least in theory. But for the last several weeks we have experienced fire behavior that will not allow for direct attack strategies, rendering public service firefighters ineffective. We cannot put personnel directly in front of these fires. Instead, we employ indirect strategies. That’s where we skip in front of the fire by hundreds of meters and use heavy equipment to cut a guard that looks like a road. In fact, it essentially is road building. The good news is that this province has more logging road builders than anywhere else. The bad news is they’re all privately owned. They’re non-union, and thus, immediately disqualified from the decision-making process.

How is it that public service employees are going to understand how to coordinate and direct the activities of a road building task force? How will they know when to use two dozers and a buncher versus two bunchers, a hoe and a dozer? How do they know where and when and how many lowbed trucks will be needed to shuttle the equipment between assignments? Do they know if it would take two hours or two days to complete three kilometres of fire guard? How steep of ground can the equipment operate? Do they know not to send equipment into swampy ground? We are seeing the answer to those questions unfold on each of B.C.’s current wildfires. People entirely unfamiliar with the complexities of these operations, unfamiliar with our fuel types, climate and resources, are displacing local talent, not to help, but to lead. Because policy states non-union crews can’t make decisions.

I have lost my patience with being placed in harm’s way because it was a higher value to that organization to have a red shirt call the shots while far better leadership was available at a local level and non-public. That used to be how fires were run. It was common for contractors to hold division supervisor roles and nine times out of 10, it was a contractor who would coordinate the equipment.

While I’m pro- (the concept of) union, I am not pro-endangering people’s lives and property for the protection of the international brotherhood of public service employees. I am certainly not in favour of the destruction of our environment on a scale far worse than the oil sands have ever caused. It is enraging to myself, to those who lost property, to those who watched equipment sit needlessly at each of B.C.’s fires, to watch this happen only because a group of BCWS leaders will not relinquish control when they are clearly out of their league.

After the 2003 season a report was commissioned by Gordon Campbell to review the effectiveness of BC Wildfire (Protection). I was a contributor to that report and it’s disappointing to see that virtually all the problems identified continue in the same, or worse, form than 2003.

Gary Filmon seemed to be the arch nemesis of public service employees while the premier of Manitoba. Is the refusal to adopt his recommendations a slight, based on his previous track record? I don’t know. Did Campbell appoint Filmon because he sensed a staunch and dogmatic union protectionist environment within Protection? I have no idea.

What’s striking to me is that on the BCWS webpage it states the “government continues to implement all of Mr. Filmon’s recommendations.” But let’s take a look at those:

“Cooperate on Training”: Interagency training exists. This is true. Between public service agencies. But not with local, non-public groups. After repeated attempts to engage with BCWS following the Filmon report, my contract group was not allowed to participate with public service firefighter training and my requests for BCWF members to drop in for a short cameo and assist in the training of contract crews was outrightly rejected. I offered even to pay the Ministry for their time, but engaging with contractors for them seemed tantamount to collaborating with scabs.

“Communications Technology”: There doesn’t appear to be any improvements to fire line communications in more than 20 years. We have Starlink providing internet to every corner of the province but we can’t get a Wi-Fi amplifier or a temporary cell signal booster on any of these fires? We operate entirely on archaic VHF systems and BCWS won’t allow loggers to have those channels (unless they also happen to be firefighter contract crews), so they are useless in communicating with any of the heavy equipment – unfortunate when heavy equipment is the primary tool at this point.

Channels are interfered with on every fire because, for whatever reason, they assign adjacent fires the same tactical channels. Communication on fire lines has not improved, it has regressed. The only reason I can muster is that those who make these decisions are not those who walk on the fire line. In fact it appears the biggest distinction between contractors and the BCWS is that contractors don’t spend 10 months of the year working in an office.

“Achieve Radio Inter-Operability”: See above. No attempt to synchronize with industry.

This is likely the main concern: “Residents, industry representatives and First Nations expressed concerns that the experience and expertise available in communities affected by the fires were not properly utilized, if at all.”

There has been no effort to address this. In fact, this issue has regressed. Each of those ranchers and property owners I saw this summer who expressed their frustration with watching heavy equipment sit idle while work needed to be done, have an absolute right to be angry about this.

“The Review Team heard commentary about the availability and adequacy of basic maps. Presenters suggested that at times, current maps were not available at all”: No improvements here. I have more often found that Google provides better maps. So why not just send Google maps? Why have teams of GIS techs working to produce maps if they’re always going to be out of date or missing vital data? This is information available to industry within a few clicks. If they can’t measure up to industry, then get out of the way.

“The Review Team heard a strong desire and willingness by many local people to help during the emergency periods of Firestorm 2003. Many expressed their frustration at being turned away, while out-of-province crews were called in to work on the fires”: Why should we have to keep hearing this echo? This report was from 18 years ago and every fire season it has echoed with this same concern. At what point will these people start to take our concerns seriously? When all the cities are burned? When all the cattle burn? When people die? What is it going to take to motivate those people to make even one adjustment in the right direction?

“Access local firefighting expertise”: It has been made clear in report after report that utilizing local forces is critical. Instead it’s treated as an after thought. Something to squeeze in after accommodating more of their friends.

“The Forest Protection Branch should restore its Type 1 unit crew complement to 27”: This one is hilarious, because they fully accomplished this, and immediately. “Increase BCGEU fire fighters? Done.”

“The Review Team heard from experienced present and former forestry workers who questioned why, in the height of the Firestorm 2003 activities, fire crews did not get out to the site until 8 or 9 a.m.”: This is a serious problem within the organization. BCWS will not get out of bed in time to get these fires under control within the early hours of the day. By 10 a.m., the temperature has often risen above the RH level causing a “crossover” effect where fire activity is highly increased. Firefighting activities in other jurisdictions shut down around this time because it is no longer effective or safe. There is a tremendous amount of work that can be accomplished in the seven to eight hours between sunrise and noon.

Yet, by noon, most BCWS members have only been on the line for an hour or two and will not allow others to start before them. They get to site by 8 or 9 a.m. and follow up with a ridiculously unnecessary morning briefing that offers no information to crews that couldn’t be attained through a three-line email. Yet, this meeting is drawn out often to two hours or more. This puts all boots on the ground as late 10 a.m. on a good day. That is unacceptable. If their crappy policies require these meetings, they can shorten them, turn them into emails or start them at 2 a.m. There is no excuse for putting firefighters in harm’s way during the heat of the day so they can cover their own ass with a “safety meeting.” I was told the reason they don’t start earlier is because it’s hard to coordinate breakfasts and lunches earlier. That is shameful.

From my limited perspective, what this appears to be is a stubborn, dogmatic leadership with no ability to improve. I see the common trap of bureaucracy where the skills and talents of people are dismissed and replaced with rigid policies and procedures which haven’t been field tested. There is most certainly union protectionism, despite that notion being refuted by BCGEU’s Paul Finch. (Sorry Paul, this ball is in your court. Be honest with us, it is up to you to build that trust – if you see value in that).

How one of these issues affects the others, I simply don’t know. I would like to know. I would like to open the hood and find out what possesses an individual to think that red shirts are more valuable than my life. I am legit interested in meeting this person. And who the hell just flatly refuses to implement improvements? They should definitely be working on a resume.

I think a comprehensive third-party review of the leadership of BC Wildfire, though not limited to BC Wildfire, would be a good start. I would encourage the Forest Minister to conduct an immediate third party safety assessment at the manager level to ensure, first of all, that the leadership in the field is competent, that policies and procedures currently in place are not posing a threat to current operations and to survey all resources, and especially privatized companies, for their safety concerns – because it has been many years since they have had a voice. I think it would be appropriate to conduct a forensic review of policies and procedures, with a mind to learning how and why there have been no improvements and how we got to the point of removing contractors from the decisions making process. What is the root cause of these failures?

I doubt this is a partisan issue. These issues have collected and stagnated for two decades, under each government. This issue is within the organization. If that is found to be the case I would think this needs a significant change at the top of the organization, perhaps at an executive level, perhaps senior management, but most likely all of it. This kind of cancer needs to be cut deep. The senior leadership should be torn from the levers of control and shifted into a consultation-only position until a new leadership team can be established and good apples sorted from bad. Maybe with new leadership we can make use of updated communication equipment, drone technology, fighting fires before crossover and, most importantly, making use of our wealth of resources.