Port McNeill council had a spirited debate over whether to provide fire fighting support to help fight wildfires on the mainland.
A staff report from Chief Adminstrative Officer Pete Nelson-Smith was included in council’s Aug. 10 agenda package, which stated that in May of 2020, council had adopted a Wildfire Response Policy, which limited Port McNeill’s response boundary to no further south than Sayward.
“The Office of the Fire Commissioner has requested any available equipment and personnel to aid in the response to the Provincial State of Emergency,” wrote Nelson-Smith in his report, adding that Port McNeill Fire Rescue Chief Dean Tait has “requested allowance to have either pumper #3 or water tender #1 be activated for response to the mainland for the 2021 fire season only. It is anticipated that only two Port McNeill members will accompany either apparatus, with potential supplementary members from surrounding departments.”
The report also noted that deployment is for a maximum of 14 days, although council can extend the deployment if requested.
Nelson-Smith continued, noting the town received over $100,000 in 2018 for supporting the Zeballos wildfire and that “provided income for some laid off workers. Pumper #3 and water tender #1 are Port McNeill’s response apparatus for mutual aid and Orca Sand and Gravel and Western Forest Products office. A call out to either location may require support from surrounding communities through [the Regional District of Mount Waddington’s] Mutual Aid agreement.”
The report concluded by asking for council to provide direction to staff on the deployment past Sayward to the mainland area.
“The request is for either the pumper truck or tender #1 to be offered for use at this time during the state of emergency and the crisis that the province finds itself in,” stated Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom.
Coun. Shelley Downey asked if they deploy the equipment, what does that mean for the community and what position would it leave the town in with regards to fire protection.
Tait was in attendance at the meeting, and he noted that every time there’s a mutual aid call for the North Island, Port McNeill Fire Rescue is always attending. “If we needed help, I’m 100 per cent sure that we would also get help.”
“Are you comfortable with this?” asked Downey. “Is the fire department comfortable with this scenario?”
“I think this is a huge opportunity for Port McNeill,” confirmed Tait, who added if they can turn around and invest the money made back into the town’s fire department, it would be really beneficial for the entire North Island.
Wickstrom asked how many active volunteers are in the fire department.
Tait said they currently have 22 firefighters and have recently picked up a few more new recruits.
“I could support what we agreed to last year, which was to provide our equipment as far as Sayward, but I really struggle with putting it over on the mainland and it being completely unavailable to us for quite a period of time,” stated Coun. Ryan Mitchell, “but the other thing is, I think that any revenue that is generated from this, there’s no volunteerism happening here, everybody will be paid, and the apparent profit from doing this I believe needs to go back into general revenue — that money rightly belongs to the citizens of Port McNeill.”
Mitchell added he could possibly support this concept if that’s what is going to happen. “I definitely wouldn’t support it if it’s just going in to buy more equipment, and we are wearing out the equipment we have by sending it out to these things.”
Coun. Ann-Marie Baron asked if they know what members of the department they would be sending with the trucks.
“We’ve already come up with a gameplan of who we are sending,” confirmed Tait.
Downey said she thinks it would be wise to send the equipment, provided they are not putting their own communities at risk.
Coun. Derek Koel spoke up and said he thinks it’s simply too big a risk to send the trucks. “If we can somehow make do without two trucks then why do we even have them? I’d hate to see a house fire, and any kind of delay could have disastrous consequences, and we could also have forest fires around here.”
Koel added he would be voting against sending the trucks.
Baron asked what’s the backup plan for fighting a fire in the North Island without water tender #1.
“That’s when you would ask for mutual aid,” said Tait, noting Hyde Creek is right near by and has two water tenders.
Wickstrom said she understands Koel’s point about the risks to the community, but “this is an exceptional situation, and I’ve seen many council colleagues on social media really struggling with what they’re facing.”
She added if it was Port McNeill that was in danger of wildfires, “I would long for someone to come and help us.”
Baron said she would prefer water tender #1 be kept back, but if they did send the trucks, “and our danger class went right back up to extreme again, what is our option to pull the trucks back?”
Tait said if the trucks are needed, they have the option to pull them out and bring them back, adding Port McNeill Fire Rescue would only be sending two of their own members, and that they could always send just one of the trucks instead of both of them.
Baron then made a motion for pumper #3 to be made available for firefighting on the mainland, which was seconded by Downey.
Koel said his main concern is the citizens of Port McNeill who are the ones that pay for the fire department, noting he can’t vote for sending the equipment because the risk is simply too big “if there’s a structure fire, or someone’s home burns down.”
Council voted on the motion after that and it ended up being approved three votes to two. Baron, Downey and Wickstrom were all in favour, while Koel and Mitchell were against.