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Volunteer firefighters, support staff burnt out from battling wildfires

Thompson-Nicola Regional District mayors are calling for more support as volunteer firefighters, support staff and full-time employees are exhausted after weeks of protecting their communities from numerous wildfires.

Mayors in the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) are calling for backup as their resources and volunteers are exhausted.

Volunteer firefighters, paid firefighters and emergency personnel have been working for more than a month straight to fight large wildfires raging in the region, according to Merlin Blackwell, the mayor of Clearwater. 

“It’s a scary situation going on out there in our region and definitely in the central part of B.C.,” says Blackwell. 

Blackwell is speaking on behalf of numerous mayors who are busy with wildfire emergencies and says his community is getting prepared to welcome evacuees. 

"We are the lifeboat that some of these people might be coming to with animals, with themselves, with their families," he tells Glacier Media.

On Sunday (Aug. 15), an emergency operations centre was activated in Clearwater to prepare to support their neighbours on alert.

"We need a break. We need some extra boots on the ground for the times when we have to ramp up and to give some of these human beings a break from the volunteering and paid jobs they have been doing for basically six weeks at full speed,” Blackwell says.

The Clearwater mayor is asking for assistance from anyone, but ideally, the Canadian military. 

“If we can get more assistance from the Canadian military, that would be great, but we’ll take it from anywhere that we can get [it],” he says.

Logan Lake’s mayor has been working non-stop as a massive wildfire came dangerously close to structures last weekend. She too echoes the call for reprieve. 

"I feel like if we had the military on the ground in our communities, to have additional help on the frontline for exhaustion relief, redeployment and for road closures and security, most people would feel a lot more secure just having their presence,” says Robin Smith. 

Logan Lake, located about 60 kilometres southwest of Kamloops, has done years' worth of fire mitigation work. When the Tremont Creek wildfire threatened structures in the community over the weekend, the district was ready. Within 24 hours, crews created "an above-ground water structure" with numerous sprinklers and hoses running along the streets.

"What Logan Lake has done has taken, realistically, decades to accomplish... at this point, it seems to have held so it is the shining example of what needs to be done for these small communities,” says Blackwell, adding "most of us aren’t there and we really do need support after this season to get caught up.”

Smith commends the people who are helping her community fight the Tremont Creek wildfire, currently mapped at 63,980 hectares.

"Our volunteers who are helping are on alerts themselves, causing shortages; our administrators looking after communications and logistics have family and they too are experiencing the same, causing difficulties with capacity... not to mention all of the folks also need a mental break,” she says.

During a press conference on Monday, Glacier Media asked provincial officials what supports will be given to communities that are pleading for more resources.

In response, B.C.’s public safety minister Mike Farnworth stated that the BC Wildfire Service is doing an “absolutely incredible job supporting these communities.”

Blackwell says he understands that BC Wildfire Service needs to focus on fighting the fires. 

"[BC Wildfire Service] needs to be where wildfire needs to be at this point and that’s on the frontline protecting life and then after that, property and infrastructure, and I think they’re stretched to the max,” says Blackwell.

Rick Manwaring, Deputy Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, says he's aware of the TNRD mayors' request and that "our incident management teams are in contact with the local governments."

Katrine Conroy, B.C.'s forestry minister, says the province is also looking at keeping some BC Wildfire Service staff on longer than usual. 

"In the past, we have also looked at post-secondary institutions to delay the start for certain people that are working for us and we are considering doing that again," she says. 

Clearwater is a high-risk community for wildfires and Blackwell says they’ve been living in a constant state of anxiety with wildfires and smoke. 

“We are basically exhausted and are looking for other people to come in and lend a hand and be that extra level of support for the exhausted volunteers, exhausted firefighters, the exhausted emergency personnel,” he says.